Safely browsing the internet can be increasingly challenging with the rise of ever more sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) threats to be navigated in order to avoid the risk of compromising your online security. The vast majority of users who breach security and open the door for malware and other cyber infiltrations put themselves in these positions unknowingly, often falling prey to online scams designed to look like legitimate web content. There are some practical steps that everyone can take to minimise their risk of passive exposure to cyber attacks, such as installing antivirus software and establishing a firewall on their device. However, a couple of wrong clicks is all it can take to invite the wolf to your door, so here are five of the most common mistakes to be avoided that can help greatly reduce the risk of exposure you face to cyber attacks online.
1. Opening Unsafe Emails
We all get emails from unknown sources from time to time, whether it’s promotional offers or, say, a work related enquiry. Of course, it’s important that you don’t go clicking links with reckless abandon. Scammers will often try an make an email look as if it comes from a reputable company (Facebook, Microsoft and Paypal are two favourites for this), and often try to lure users in with the promise of free compensation, prizes available to be claimed or romantic interest. Some of the tell tale signs you’ve got a fake email is poor grammar, alarmist messages telling you (ironically) that your security has been breached, and long string email addresses of origin that usually have a random-looking alphanumeric address that bears no relation to the purported company of origin. Fortunately, most email providers will divert the majority of such emails straight to the spam bin, but occasionally one will slip through, so always exercise caution when opening emails from unknown contacts, and avoid clicking on any links said emails may contain.
2. Making Use of Public Wifi Networks
Although many of us use them without a second thought, public wifi networks can leave us heavily exposed to cyber attacks. The danger here is that we can never know who else is using the network, and is therefore in proximity to our browsing data. Competent hackers can easily piggyback on these networks to see our browsing activity, and even gain remote access to our devices. The best way to avoid this is to configure your computer to restrict file access on public networks, and to install a VPN that can keep your activity and digital footprint private while allowing you to use the Wifi network with peace of mind and enhanced security.
3. Browsing Websites That Don’t Have SSL
One of the cornerstones of online site security is SSL (Secure Socket Layer) technology that helps encrypt data moving between the website and browser. It’s the baseline for most website security these days, and the biggest and most reputable websites will all employ it without fail. It’s easy to discover whether or not you’re on an SSL-encrypted website, as you should see the URL begin with HTTPS, and a green padlock icon should be visible next to the address bar at all times. Should you not be on such a website, the padlock icon will appear with a red line through it. SSL will mostly be absent from websites of dubious origin, such as websites for torrent and warez downloads, or blatant scammer sites. If you are going to visit sites of this nature, be aware that you face a much higher risk of exposure to malware and cybercrime.
4. Activating Pop-Up Content
The average internet page seems more saturated than ever with advertising content, and whilst much of it is legitimate, it can be easy for a dangerous pop-up to slip through the net. Many users click on these by mistake, only to find they’ve engaged with malware content that can harm their computer. Employing an ad-blocker at all times is the best way to stay protected from these threats, and you can always whitelist legitimate sites if they require it. Should you still find yourself face to face with a pop-up, sometimes the safest response is to open the task manager and shut down your browser from there rather than trying to close it in the browser window, so as to limit your chance of further interaction with the toxic web content.
5. Employing Simple Passwords
This is one of the most common bad habits that online users fail to address. Using simple passwords and having only one password for all your different security needs makes life much easier for anyone trying to make you the victim of a cyber attack. Employ stronger passwords that use a mixture of letters, numbers, symbols and different cases. You don’t need to have twenty wholly unique passwords if that’s too hard to remember, as you can use differently spaced or capitalised versions of the same basic phrase to help make it much harder to crack. Bear in mind the different accounts you have across the internet may be with websites of differing repute and security, so consider earmarking different passwords for higher and lower risk account access.
Avoiding these simple mistakes when browsing can help minimise your risk of exposure to cyber attacks, and most of these are a matter of maintaining vigilance and common sense when online. If something feels unsafe, listen to your gut and close the tab, or make some research about the site’s reputation beforehand. In ways such as this, we can all make it that much harder for the cyber criminals to win.