Are you doing enough to protect yourself online?

Think about how much information passes through your computer and mobile devices each day: all those emails, photos, texts, documents, contact information, passwords, bills and bank statements. Now think about all of the information that businesses and government agencies handle.

It’s daunting, isn’t it? Any of that content can fall into the wrong hands. This October, experts are reminding individuals and businesses alike about the risks we all face online. This theme for this year’s National Cyber Security Awareness Month is “Our Shared Responsibility” — a reminder that we all share in the responsibility when it comes to online safety.

What’s new in cyber crime?

We wish we could report cyber crime was on the decline, but the insidious crimes continue to make gains. Despite all the education and awareness efforts out there, cyber crime costs Canadians upwards of $1.4 billion each year, warns the 2012 Norton Cybercrime Report. The report estimates that nearly half of all online adults experienced cyber crime last year, and more than one third encountered the tactics through social media.

Forget what you see in the movies about complex plots involving highly skilled hackers. Experts note that cyber criminals don’t need expensive tools or high levels of expertise to perpetuate their crimes. Even minor crimes can cause widespread damages and losses.

Unfortunately, crooks also know how to outsmart the people they’re targeting. Experts warn that many people aren’t up to speed on the latest cyber crimes. Remember when malware slowed down or crashed computers? Now, it can run discreetly in the background and go unnoticed.

In addition, cyber crime is no longer just about computers. As mobile offerings continue to multiply, so do the ways online crooks can target users. We’re not always aware of new criminal strategies to be found on devices we’re just learning ourselves. Most people have security measures in place on their computers, but not on their mobile devices.

The rise of social media also means a rise in scams and malware that exploit those platforms — crimes which new users may not know to avoid.

“Acts of cybercrime today are not the same as they were years ago,” said Lynn Hargrove, director of Consumers Solutions, Symantec Canada, in a press release. “Before cybercriminals wanted notoriety, they wanted you to know you’d been had, but they’ve evolved over the years. If they can behave silently, they know they can live longer on your machine and continue to carry out their malicious activity. Consumers need to understand the landscape has changed and take additional steps to protect themselves.”

So what can we do to better protect ourselves?


The biggest step most people neglect

When was the last time you changed your passwords? If you can’t remember, you’re in good company — experts warn that most people don’t change their passwords often enough or make them strong enough to protect their information. Chances are you’ve seen a few scam emails pretending to be from your friends and family, but there are even greater dangers.

“Personal email accounts often contain the keys to your online kingdom.” says Adam Palmer, Norton Lead Cybersecurity Advisor. “Not only can criminals gain access to everything in your inbox, they can also reset your passwords for any other online site you may use by clicking the ‘forgot your password’ link, intercepting those emails and effectively locking you out of your own accounts.”

When it comes to smarter passwords, experts advise to:

Make them hard to guess. Avoid names or words people could guess, and use numbers, symbols and capital letters to make passwords more complex. It worries experts how often “123456” and “password” are still used.

Change them often. Change your passwords at least every six months, and change them immediately if you think your account has been compromised.

Make them original. If a hacker can obtain one of your passwords, they can use it to access multiple accounts. Each account should have its own password.

Need a little help? We’ve got some tips for creating passwords you’ll remember. If you do have to write down passwords to remember them, experts say to keep the list in a safe place well away from your computer.

Passwords aren’t just for your online accounts: they should be used to protect your computer and mobile devices as well. (Think of how much information could be gained from a lost cell phone or tablet, for instance.) Login passwords may not stop a determined criminal, but they offer another level of privacy and protection.

Other tips to stay safe online

Passwords are an important step, but they’re just one of many. Awareness campaigns such as Get Cyber Safe and STOP. THINK. CONNECT. offer more ways to stay safe online:

Keep your machines clean. Anti-virus software and a firewall can go a long way to keeping your computer free from malware, but don’t forget that mobile devices and storage devices (such USB drives) can harbour viruses as well. A good rule of thumb: if it connects to the internet, it needs protection. (The National Cyber Security Alliance has a list of free security checkups you can use.)

Regularly update your software. Hackers can exploit gaps in the software you run on your computer, including your operating system, internet browser and other applications. It’s important to keep your programs current — especially since updates often include security patches.

Learn about privacy settings — and use them. Before you use a site or social networking service, read the privacy terms and get to know the settings. Experts warn to limit what you share with strangers. (See What you should know about online privacy for more details.)

Ignore messages you don’t trust. We may be used to ignoring spam in our inboxes, but the same applies to questionable messages from people we know — along with texts, tweets and social media updates. If something seems “off”, ignore it or delete it.

Avoid links and attachments you don’t trust. If you do open that message, avoid clicking on those links or attachments. You could end up with malware on your system or be taken to a fraudulent website.

Only use websites you know and trust. Experts warn to only use secure websites when money and information is changing hands — and look out for imposters. Avoid clicking on links in emails, for example, and visit the website via a bookmark or search engine instead.

Be mindful of what you post. How much information are you giving away in your online profiles and status updates? Criminals can piece together a lot of data about you from a variety of sources.

The Golden Rule applies to social media updates too — “post only about others as you have them post about you”. Think about what information you are revealing about others before you post.

Keep up-to-date on the latest crimes. Take time to familiarize yourself with top scams and new criminal tactics. Learn what warning signs to watch out for and how to stop the scammers.

Share what you know. Talk to your family and friends about these crimes and how to avoid them. Encourage them to come to you with questions or concerns. All too often, people who become victims are too embarrassed to admit it — and are often targeted again as a result.

If you or someone you know is the victim of a cyber crime, report it. You may not be able to reverse the damage, but you can help warn others and help authorities investigate.

Remember, the internet is a shared resource — and it’s one experts say we all play a role in protecting. Watch for events and activities in your area throughout October. Many companies, educational institutions and community organizations are participating in National Cyber Security Awareness Month to help everyone stay safe.


Want to know more? Visit our Fight Fraud section and check out these sources for tips:
Public Safety Canada: Cyber Security information for Canadians
RCMP: Internet Safety Resources
Canadian Bankers Association: Stay Safe Online

You can also follow the #NCSAM hashtag on Twitter for more updates.

Photo © Henrik Jonsson

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