Software, hardware and privacy tools to strengthen your Internet security: Internet Scambusters #543
Watertight Internet security may be out of reach for just about everyone but there's plenty you can do to make yourself almost impregnable.
In fact, just five tools hold the key to safe activity online -- Internet security software, password managers, firewalls, virtual credit card numbers, and privacy settings.
In this week's issue we explain why you need them, how they work, and where to look for more information.
Now, here we go...
The 5 Most Important Internet Security Tools
Internet security is, or should be, the number one consideration for all online computer users. Let your guard down for a second and your finances, and even your way of life, could be dangerously at risk.
Yet, with just a handful of "tools" you could be almost totally secure. We say "almost" because, of course, no set-up, not even government computer systems, is infallible.
When it comes down to it, there are just five tools that will provide most of the protection you need -- Internet security software, a password manager, a firewall (we'll talk more about this in a moment), virtual credit card numbers, and privacy settings.
Over the years, here at Scambusters, we've featured most of these subjects in detail, especially the issues of passwords and anti-virus software. See for instance:
Get Tough With Computer Passwords and Secret Questions
But, like everything else in the online world, things change pretty quickly. The scammers and hackers are getting cleverer and the techniques for protecting ourselves have become correspondingly more complex and demanding.
That's why we think it's time to consider using a password manager rather than relying on your memory and the old fallbacks like using a string of letters representing phrases you can easily recall.
The trouble is that most of us are now using so many different password-protected sites it's become virtually impossible to create and remember different codes for each one -- and we always recommend that you should have a different password for each secure site.
Most Internet browsers can save these passwords for you but the truth is they're not really secure against a determined hacker.
Built-in managers in Internet security software are somewhat better but still far from perfect.
Ideally, you should use a dedicated password manager that will not only safely store them but also generate random patterns of letters, numbers, and symbols and even update them regularly.
All you have to do is create and remember one extremely difficult master password!
There are a number of both free and paid-for password managers, the most popular being LastPass, KeePass, 1Password and RoboForm. We personally use KeePass and 1Password, but we recommend you do your own research according to your needs.
Internet Security Software
We've said it before but we'll say it again -- anti-virus software by itself may provide powerful protection, but there's lots of things it may not do.
A more comprehensive suite, often using the term "Internet security" but increasingly, these days, using other labels like "360," "Total" or "Platinum" etc., will do much more.
It may stop spam, analyze sites and programs for as-yet-unknown viruses (heuristics), block dangerous websites, alert you to malware, and prevent malicious programs from running. It will also set up a firewall, which we discuss below, and may even automatically back up your system.
Computer magazines regularly publish comparisons and league tables of the best performing Internet security programs and they frequently change position from year to year.
But it's worth noting that none of them ever scores 100% on all security aspects, so be warned.
Remember too that security software is only as good as the last update. If you don't do that regularly, preferably automatically, it will very quickly leave your system vulnerable.
Firewalls and Router Security
As the name suggests, a firewall is a shield against external dangers. It monitors and, when appropriate, blocks attempts to penetrate your system by hackers or malware.
It may also (but not always) block attempts by a malware-infected computer to transmit stolen data from within your machine to a crook.
Computer operating systems like Windows come with a built-in firewall, and most Internet security software has an even more powerful defense that alerts you to any attempt to penetrate your system.
If you have a home network, the router -- the device that links to the modem to allow multiple computers to connect -- may also have a built-in hard-wired firewall, which is usually even more powerful.
You can also increase the safety of your router from outside attack by imposing one of several levels of security.
Explaining how to do that is beyond the scope of this article, but it's worth spending the time to read your router manual or visit the maker's website and setting the highest possible level of security. And always change the password from the default password.
Virtual Credit Card Numbers
Many credit card issuers offer the opportunity to generate a one-time number for an online transaction.
This means if the number is somehow intercepted, it has no further value beyond that one transaction.
So, even if you're visiting a bogus site to buy something, painful as it will be, you will still only be out the amount for that one deal. The crook can't use the number again.
Check with your card issuer to see if they offer this facility. It may involve installing a small program on your computer.
If all that sounds too complicated, remember that using an online payment service like PayPal can also protect your card number.
Every browser, email program and social network, and many other online services, offer levels of security that will protect your privacy and, potentially, your identity.
We could write a whole book on the subject and it's true that setting up privacy controls individually for each site can be time-consuming and somewhat complex.
But it's becoming more and more important, especially the issue of tracking -- where sites monitor your activities and then record or pass on details to other Internet operators.
Virtually any website you visit will do this without your knowledge.
You should always check and adjust the privacy settings for any software or website you use regularly.
For now, your ability to control tracking is limited, but most Internet browsers allow you to surf anonymously and may soon come with tracker-blockers.
Add-ons and extensions that partly do the job now are also available. See, for instance, disconnect.me, a free track-blocking extension developed by a recently launched Californian venture, which one of the Scambusters team is currently trialing.
In the not-too-distant future, we can expect to see biometric protection -- fingerprint, facial or retina recognition -- replacing passwords.
Security software, privacy protection, and tracking control will also become more sophisticated.
But so will the crooks.
Keeping up with latest trends and protection techniques is vital -- so make sure Scambusters is also part of your Internet security toolkit!
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!