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Send in reinforcements

Following some simple guidelines can increase your online security and privacy.

Whether at home or at work, securing your computers is essential. Perhaps of equal or even greater consequence is protecting yourself, your family, or your business while online. Protecting your identity and sensitive data needn’t be a tricky or expensive affair. By following some simple guidelines and using a few tools, you can greatly increase your online security while reducing the chances of having your personal data fall into the wrong hands.

Check it out

Before purchasing anything online, whether at home or at work, inspect the security and privacy policy information on the company’s Web site where you are doing business. For example, if you visit the Amazon Web site, you’ll find a link at the very bottom of the site that describes the company’s privacy policy.

When examining privacy or security notices on Web sites, there are three things in particular that you should look for. First, you need to know how the company’s Web site protects your personal information while it is passing from your Web browser to their servers. Don’t do business with a Web site unless they encrypt data.

Next, you’ll want to know if the Web site shares your information with other companies. See what options you have to decline such sharing of your information. Last, check what precautions the Web site takes to protect your information from outside hackers and internal but unauthorized employees once it is stored on their servers. If you don’t see a privacy policy posted on a Web site where you do business, you have no way of knowing what information the company is collecting, how secure their processes are, and what they will do with your personal information once it’s collected.

Purchase only from companies you know and feel you can trust. This may sound rather basic, but there is more to it than you might think. Where is the company physically located? Where will your personal information be stored? Your choice of company can increase or decrease the chances of identity theft.

A little privacy, please

Check your browser for secure transmission of private information. When making purchases or passing sensitive information online, such as an account number, be sure your browser is encrypting the information. There are two things you can do to verify that the Web site you are on is encrypting your data. First, check the address bar of your browser. When you travel to Web sites that are not using encryption, you will see the familiar http in the Web site address. At the point when you enter sensitive data, the address should include either https or shttp, depending on the technologies used by the Web site. Second, look at the bottom of your browser for a “key” or “lock” symbol. When a Web site is encrypting your data, you will see a locked lock or an unbroken key. By clicking on the key or lock, you can review the specifics of the security information for the Web site, including its digital certificate (which verifies the site’s identity) and the strength of encryption being used.

Best defense

Practice virus-defense strategies. It used to be enough to say that you should never open attachments from people that you don’t know and that you should update antivirus software frequently. This still applies. These days, however, viruses can be hiding in e-mail headers (meaning that you merely have to receive the message to be infected) and in Web site code. Check your antivirus software and enable real time protection to virus-check Internet downloads and e-mail as it is downloaded from your e-mail server. If your antivirus software doesn’t include real-time protection, switch to a product that does.

Did I ask for that?

Proactively monitor all statements for unauthorized transactions. Did you know that Federal law restricts your liability for unauthorized credit card charges to $50, provided that you report the problem right away? Debit cards do not carry the same level of protection, and your liability will vary depending on the bank involved. Each month, take a quick scan through all bank and credit card statements and verify that the debits and credit charges are indeed ones you have authorized. If you find unauthorized charges or errors in amounts charged by online companies, contact your bank or credit card company promptly.

Hold the line

Protect your Internet connectivity. Whether your business has a good-sized technology budget or you’re a home user of computers, chances are you are connected to the Internet through either a dial-up or broadband connection. Once connected, unauthorized persons can easily obtain your personal information unless you protect your computers.

We’ve talked before in this column about using firewall technology and you certainly should use a firewall no matter how simple your computer configuration might be. A software-based firewall, such as Zone Labs’ ZoneAlarm, is a good budget-minded approach. Many operating systems, such as Linux and Windows, now also include built-in firewall technology. You might also consider a hardware-based firewall. Learn how your firewall works and check its logs frequently for unauthorized accesses. Shut down any services on your computers that you don’t absolutely have to have running. Use security audit tools, such as those found at Broadband Reports, to check how secure your connection is. If possible, turn off your computer when it is not in use.

What’s the password, Mac?

Change passwords frequently and use passwords that are not easy to guess. Ideally, a monthly change of passwords is a good way to increase your online security. The other important thing to remember is to not use passwords that are similar to your name, your significant other’s or kids’ names, or your cat’s or dog’s name. It is always best to create a password that combines letters, numbers, and other characters. For example, to create a more secure password, you might take a phrase that is familiar to you, such as “I used to drive a Pinto.” Take the first letter of each word and substitute the number 1 in place of any vowels. Your resulting password would then be 11td1p. You might also alternate the numbers for consonants or use other characters, such as % or &.

Tales from the encrypt

Use e-mail encryption. Contrary to what you may think, e-mail is not private. After hitting the send button in your e-mail program, your message can be scanned and read by unauthorized parties as it crosses the wires to its intended recipient. Thus, if you need to e-mail sensitive data, which might include personal information, you should use e-mail encryption software to scramble your message before sending it. You might consider using GNU Privacy Guard to scramble e-mails if you use Windows, Macintosh, Linux, or BSD operating systems on your computers. It is easy to install and works with most e-mail clients. For example, an available plug-in for the Eudora e-mail client allows you to encrypt e-mail at the press of a button using GNU Privacy Guard.

Cookie cutter

Manage cookies on your computer regularly. Many Web sites (and their advertisers) use a type of file called a cookie to store (on your computer) tracking information about how you interact with their Web site and, often, what other sites you are visiting. This information can also be tied to personal information you may have provided on the Web site. Configure your Web browser to limit cookies. In addition, only accept cookies when it is absolutely necessary to access and use a Web site. If your browser will not let you view stored cookies and limit cookie usage (e.g., accepting cookies only from the originating site and only for session duration), you should consider changing your Web browser.

Mail and remail

Consider an anonymous remailer. If you are really concerned about your privacy or just want to keep spam out of your inbox, you might consider maintaining a second e-mail address. This address could be one that you only use while online while you keep your primary e-mail address for communications with family and friends. There are also anonymous remailer services available that can mask your identity. These services are useful for keeping e-mail private.

Think of the kids

If you have children in the house, make sure that you also protect their online security and privacy. Limit and monitor chat room activity and help them set up online identities that don’t reveal their age or any personal information. Get familiar with existing laws designed to help protect children while online. Educate your children on how to identify spam and advertising online and show them what information they can and cannot provide while online. Finally, use e-mail cleansing and parental filtering tools to prevent your kids from viewing unacceptable content.

Protecting yourself, your family, and your business while online is critical. Not doing so may result in one or more unwanted consequences, including identity theft. What steps will you take this month to increase your security and privacy while online?

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