The internet has undoubtedly unlocked a whole new world for us. It's now possible to shop for goods in global marketplaces, talk to people from other parts of the world, stream videos wherever you are, and share your thoughts and feelings with whoever is willing to listen.
However, while the internet has so many good things to offer, as with anything, there is a dark side as well. Recognizing there are threats, and that they are serious, is the first step but then it's equally as important that you put yourself in a position in which you're not overly exposed to the threats you can't control and not exposed to the ones you can.
To help you do this, we've put together this ultimate internet safety guide. It includes all the information about the latest threats lurking out there on the internet, and it also details some simple but effective strategies that you can implement to keep you, and any children under your care, safe while on the web.
Just to give you an idea as to how extensive this threat really is, here are the latest and most surprising stats surrounding internet threats:
Now that you can see the threat is real, it's time to dive a bit more into the many different dangers that are out there looming all around you when you're online.
When most of us think of a threat we face online, one of the first things that comes to mind is a hack. A hack occurs when someone who is not authorized to have access to an account or device can get it. It's the equivalent of a virtual break-in.
Typically, when someone hacks into an account or a device, they are looking to get paid. They either want to steal lots of valuable information, which they can sell to more sophisticated criminals, or they want to steal directly from you.
Hacks can occur on a large scale, as when a big company is compromised, and this can lead to massive data loss, a ton of headaches for the company, and a lot of trouble for you. A good example of this in recent history is the Equifax hack, which occurred in 2017, but that the company is still paying for.
The company's security systems were breached and hackers got a hold of millions of people's names, social security numbers, credit card numbers, and more.
These are the hacks people tend to fear the most, but they aren't the biggest threat. These large companies have tremendous cybersecurity teams in place whose sole purpose is to protect your information. As a result, hackers are starting to target smaller companies and organizations even more, as they still have valuable information they can steal but they don't usually have anywhere near the same defense system in place.
Unfortunately, there isn't a ton you as an individual can do to prevent these hacks. It's impossible to predict who hackers are going to target and when, so the best thing is to try to only give valuable information to companies you trust and that you know have a good security team in place. There are other things you can do to help minimize the damage a hack can cause to you, but we'll discuss these a little later when focusing on the things you can do to stay safe online.
Few things in our digital world are scarier than identity theft. After all, how much worse could things be than losing your identity?
This occurs when a hacker is able to take over enough of your personal information to be able to operate in the world as if they were you. They usually get a hold of your name and address, social security number, passwords, credit card information, and more, and they can use this to do anything from stealing a little bit of money using a fake credit card to completely ruining your life.
For example, when a hacker steals someone's identity, it's not uncommon for them to sign up for a bunch of credit cards in that person's name, max them out, and then run before there is any problem. This will leave you with all the debt, and the person who did this to you is in the wind.
Other forms of identity theft aren't as horrifying but can still have a big impact on your peace of mind. For example, someone can hack your social media account or email and use it to try and get information from people with whom you are connected. Often, when this type of hack occurs, the hacker will demand a ransom, telling you that they will post embarrassing pictures of you, or say terrible things to important people if you don't first give them a large sum of cash.
This isn't meant to scare you, as the actual threat of having your identity stolen is still quite low, but we're instead trying to emphasize how important it is to practice good habits while online. A few small measures can go a long way towards minimizing the danger you face and keeping you safe online.
Malware and spyware, which are some of the most common forms of computer viruses, are files you download and install onto your computer – usually unknowingly – that can cause all sorts of damage.
Perhaps the most superficial but still damaging thing they can do is wreck your machine. Viruses are known to "infect" a computer's hard drive, which can corrupt all your files or just delete them automatically. Really bad viruses can make your machine unusable.
However, these types of "scorched earth" viruses aren't all that common, as the hacker doesn't get much out of it except the pride and prestige the hacker community bestows on people who can unleash such madness on the public.
Instead, a virus on your computer is more likely to hold your machine hostage, meaning a message will pop up saying that you must pay a certain amount of money or else lose everything.
Another common virus might take over your computer and send you a message like "We've found illegal and illicit material on your computer. Pay this now to delete and stay safe from the authorities." Of course, if this were even close to real, then you wouldn't be able to simply pay your way out of trouble through some online portal, but in most cases, they are simply trying to scare you.
Other types of malware will simply steal stuff off your computer. They might infect your computer in such a way so that every time you enter a password or credit card number, it's copied and sent to the hacker's computer. They can then use this information to gain access to larger networks, where the prizes are bigger, or to hold you ransom.
Fortunately, the potential threat malware and other viruses pose is much larger than their actual threat, especially if you use good defensive software and practice smart habits while online.
These are the most dangerous threats largely because they rely on people to make mistakes, which we are all known to do every once in a while. We could never possibly detail all the many scams and frauds out there, but here are some of the most prominent you need to watch out for:
This is the practice of trying to bait people into giving up valuable information, such as personal data or passwords. Hackers usually use email, but there is also SMS and social media phishing.
They often send you something that looks legitimate, either an email from a friend or a message from a known and trusted company, asking you to enter your personal information for some reason, either to help someone out or to save your account from being deleted. These are always false, though, and by falling for this trick, you are putting yourself in jeopardy.
However, hackers are notorious for making their phishing attempts seem real. Always double-check something before giving away your information, and be on the lookout for "spoofed" content. We'll teach you how to do that later on.
As a society, we lose a shocking amount of money to online dating scams – \$143 million last year alone. And we're not referring to people spending their money on legitimate dating sites. Instead, we're referring to people who "fall in love" online and then are tricked into sending money or other items of value to their newfound lovers who they have never met.
Of course, when you read this, you're probably thinking, "that could never happen to me." But that's what everyone who falls for an online dating scheme says right before it happens.
Just be sure to know the people you're talking to online, and never, NEVER, give money to people over the internet that you haven't first met in person.
Everyone loves free stuff, so much so that they will convince themselves that stuff they read on the internet promising them something for free is true. Again, you'd be surprised how often people fall for this.
Of course, it's easy enough to stay safe from this. Simply follow the "if it's too good to be true, it probably is" adage while browsing the web. This will usually keep you from falling for the ad that says "Free iPhone for filling out this survey!" which is almost always a ploy to get you to give up information you really should not be sharing with strangers.
Bullying has been around since the beginning of time, so it's no surprise that it's made its way into the digital realm, and it has been given a new name – cyberbullying.
In total, around 37 percent of people report having been cyberbullied in their lifetime, and while 87 percent of children report having seen it online, this problem is not limited to the youth. Plenty of adults have experienced cyberbullying, and it can have a damaging effect on your psyche and self-esteem.
Typically, you can avoid cyberbullying by only maintaining healthy relationships with people online and training yourself to not put too much stock in what others say. However, for children, and some adults, this is much easier said than done, and cyberbullying, which erodes the opinion you have of yourself, can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many other psychological and physical problems that can have a huge impact on your overall well-being.
Spending so much time online can also pose some serious risks to your health. If you're a victim of cyberbullying, it can have a pretty tremendous effect on your mental health, which can quickly translate to your physical health.
Social media can also have a negative impact on mental health. Spending too much time online, scrolling through pictures of other people, comparing their lives to yours, can degrade your self-esteem and create lots of issues. It's important to not only limit the time you spend doing this but also keep perspective while you are – the lives people present online are only snapshots, not true portraits, of the myriad struggles and triumphs they are experiencing.
Lastly, spending lots of time online can have some physical health impacts as well. Too much time looking at a screen can strain your eyes and lead to headaches and vision problems, and hunching over a phone for a long time can cause back and neck pain, as well. There are a lot of studies out there that suggest the lights from our phones can mess up the body's natural sleep rhythm, which is why you should avoid using it right before bed – something so few of us do.
In truth, we know very little about the true health impacts using all these digital devices can have on long-term health, but almost all experts agree that limiting your screen time can't be bad for you, and is something we should all strive to do, especially with young children.
Clearly, the internet is a minefield. But just like any minefield, it can be plenty safe so long as you know where to step.
We can't tell you how to completely avoid getting into trouble online, but if you follow these steps, you will significantly reduce the number of risks you face:
The very first thing you can do is to practice safe browsing. This means only visit sites that you know and can trust, and steer clear of sites where there are tons of pop-up ads, illicit material you didn't want to see, pirated material, etc. In other words, anywhere you shouldn't be.
Another thing you can do is to keep an eye out for the https:// indicator in your browser. On Chrome it shows up as a closed padlock, and in other browsers, you will see something similar.
This means the site you're on is using a common yet strong defense system that makes it much less likely for you to get into trouble while on it. It's so effective that Google prioritizes sites that have it and pushes those that don't further down into search results so that they don't threaten users.
If you're not sure of a site but still think it's okay – something that happens to online shoppers a lot when they find a new store – then look for contact information. If it's there, send an email or make a phone call. If it's a real store, someone will answer – who doesn't want new customers? If it's not a real store but instead a scam, you will do best to avoid it completely.
This strategy might mean waiting a few days to buy the thing you want or need, but those few days lost are well worth what you gain in safety.
Lastly, you will want to simply practice the "careful where you click" defense system. The sketchier the site you're on, the more likely it is a click will trigger a download or other unwanted action. So, safeguard your clicks and you should be able to stay pretty safe while online.
This is internet security 101; the building block of your online safety. A password is the first line of defense into any piece of software, and if a hacker gets hold of your password there is not much you can do to stop them.
To cover all your bases, you need to have a password for each device you use, your WiFi network, and, of course, the many accounts you have with companies and organizations operating on the web.
No matter what you're securing, to make sure your passwords are doing all they can to keep you safe from the online threats, make sure you're following these guidelines:
Make them hard to guess. No birthdays, children's names, or 123456's. Choose something most people aren't going to know, and use symbols, numbers, and a mixture of upper and lower case letters to throw people off and make your accounts more secure.
Use different passwords for all your accounts. Yes, this is a huge pain but you're putting yourself in a much more secure position if you do this. By changing the passwords you ensure that the loss of one account doesn't lead others to be compromised, which can result in full-on identity theft. If you're concerned about being able to remember all your passwords, consider using an encrypted password manager such as Last Pass to make it easier to access your accounts without having to remember all the different passwords you make.
Change them frequently. Try to get into the habit of changing your passwords every 6-12 months. This just makes it that much more unlikely a hacker will succeed in getting into your account.
Use two-factor authentication where possible. Two-factor authentication just means you need to do two things to get into an account or a device. For example, on your phone, you may be able to unlock it with your face, but consider also using a password. On your accounts, two-factor authentication might mean answering a security question after putting in your password, or replying to a text message sent to your phone that's meant to confirm your identity. This extra layer of security will make you much safer and is usually quite easy to set up.
Using antivirus software is perhaps one of the easiest yet most effective things you can do to stay safe online. These programs constantly scan your computer to see if there is any malicious software present, and they are also really useful for helping prevent you from downloading anything that could be bad.
Most antivirus programs these days have a "safe search" feature that will tell you which search results and websites appear safe and which might be problematic. They also hold any downloads from going through until you've confirmed that you were trying to download something.
Traditionally, antivirus software has only been needed on PCs, but hackers and other cybercriminals are targeting other devices, particularly Macs, even more. It's also a good idea to think about some sort of defense system for your phones and tablets.
Another really easy thing you can do to stay safe online is ensure all your devices are updated. Software developers are constantly looking for holes in their products that hackers could exploit to steal information, and when they find something, they release an update so that you're less exposed.
However, these updates are useless if you don't actually install them. As a result, when you get a notification that an app or your operating system needs an update, don't delay. Install it as soon as you can so that your defenses are fully up-to-date.
Quite a few companies, mostly banks and credit card companies, now have features that allow you to receive notifications when there is activity on your account. When all is normal, you will get a text message right after you do something, such as making a purchase online, and if everything is correct, you simply leave it alone.
However, should the day arrive where a hacker or cybercriminal gets a hold of your information and tries to steal from you, you'll be instantly notified, and this will allow you to act quickly – you can suspend your account, report the transaction as fraud, and immediately begin the process of recuperating any lost funds.
These services are free and easy to set up, and while they technically represent a reactive strategy, they can help minimize the damage of an attack and reduce the size of the headache it causes.
Our kids face unique threats while they're online, and this means we need to have a unique strategy for helping them stay safe. Whenever possible, implement the tactics listed above, but also consider the following:
Probably the best defense you can provide your children with is a good head on their shoulders. It's important you talk to them about what they do online, what the risks are, and what they should do if they encounter an inappropriate situation.
It's also important that you be informed about the things that are popular with kids these days so that you can have a more thoughtful discussion to which they can relate, something that will encourage them to open up.
Of course, kids aren't always going to be the more forthcoming, but so long as you approach the situation not as a helicopter parent trying to tell them what to do but rather as a confidant and resource, you should be able to get through to them and help them understand what it means to be safe online.
For those who would like to go a bit further, you can implement parental controls on your kids' devices, your internet connection, your cable, and a whole lot more.
In an ideal world, the conversations you have with your kids would make these controls unnecessary, but sometimes that's simply not a case. Some useful controls include preventing your kids from sharing information on social media without your permission.
This may frustrate them, but some kids, especially younger kids, are simply too immature and are therefore unable to tell which information simply mustn't be shared on the internet.
Limiting your child's screen time is probably a good idea no matter what, but it also decreases the chances of them falling onto a site where they can get into trouble.
How you go about doing this will depend on the situation, but you could prevent kids from taking connected devices into their rooms after certain hours, or you could require them to browse on devices that are kept in public areas.
Now that you know all the threats you face, and some tips to help keep you safe, secure browsing is right around the corner. Remember, hackers and other cybercriminals are constantly looking for new ways to get after you, so keep yourself informed and remain vigilant at all times.