As we spend more and more of our lives online - managing our money and doing our shopping - we're more likely to encounter problems. Viruses, scams and other cyber-crimes are continuing to become more common. So what's the best way to stay safe online? Let's take a look.
1. Install anti-virus software
Anti-virus software is a must if you use Windows (less so for Macs, Chromebooks, phone and tablets). It doesn't just protect you against viruses you can get though email attachments or dodgy downloads; it protects against all malware - any software designed with malicious intent. This includes nasties like spyware that steals your passwords, and ransomware, which locks down your computer unless you pay up.
Free anti-virus software from your broadband provider
A lot of the best broadband providers give you a free, or cheap, anti-virus subscription as part of their deal. If yours is on this list, make sure you take them up on the offer:
- BT: with BT you get the McAfee powered BT virus Protect. You can install it on two or up to 15 machines, depending on your package. You also get Web Protect, which checks websites you visit are safe, and True Key, a secure password manager you can install on five devices.
- EE: EE Home Broadband gives you a year's subscription to Norton Security Premium for up to 10 devices. After that it costs £39.99 a year, half the normal price.
- Plusnet: Plusnet Protect, from McAfee, is free for Unlimited and Unlimited Fibre Extra customers. On the standard Unlimited Fibre deal you'll need to pay an extra £2 a month for your virus protection. You can install it on up to seven PCs.
- Sky Broadband: on one of Sky's Unlimited deals you get a 12 month free trial of the McAfee Internet Security suite for up to three PCs. On the limited packages you get three months. Once the trial is up you can keep it going for £3 extra a month.
- TalkTalk: with TalkTalk you get HomeSafe, an award winning online security package. This combines some virus protection and parental controls. It isn't a full anti-virus tool, though.
- Virgin Media: Virgin Media Security is worth £39.95 a year, but is free to all Virgin Media broadband customers. It gives you full anti-virus coverage for up to three PCs.
- Vodafone: with Vodafone you get a free six month sub to F Secure SAFE anti-virus package for up to five devices. After that, you can subscribe for £39.99 a year - half the normal price.
- NOW Broadband: with NOW you get the Broadband Buddy service. This helps to protect you against malware-infected sites, but isn't a full anti-virus package.
Malware isn't just a concern for those who browse the murkier reaches of the internet. Perfectly benign, mainstream websites can become compromised, and even ads can be crafted to try and do bad things without you even needing to click on them.
2. Keep your software updated
It's so tempting to turn off automatic software updates. They always pop up at the worst possible time, and if it happens to be a Windows update you can write off the next half hour waiting for it to finish.
Except, software updates are really important. Especially the Windows ones.
They don't just bring new features or improved performance, they make your computer more secure. Bugs in software can create the kind of security risks that malware thrives upon. Not only do they allow the malware into your system, they can also enable it to spread from one machine to another.
Updates shut down these vulnerabilities. At the very least, don't turn off updates to Windows or your web browser, such as Google Chrome. Better still, allow all your apps to update as they need to.
3. Learn how to recognise online scams
Malware is designed to exploit weaknesses in computer systems, but the truth is the weakest points of all are us, the users. You can lock down your laptop but it won't stop someone trying to trick you into handing over your passwords.
Phishing scams, as they're called, have moved on a lot since the days of the Nigerian prince who wanted to send you tens of millions of dollars. They're now a whole lot more sophisticated and difficult to spot. And it isn't just online that you need to be wary. You might get a text message purporting to be from your mobile network, or you could get a scam call from your broadband provider.
So, how do you spot scams? Here's a few tips:
- Spelling and grammar mistakes in emails are a dead giveaway. Also, does the email greet you by name or a generic title?
- Beware of emails demanding urgent action. Scammers try to scare you into responding, like telling you there's been a security alert on your account, or you're overdrawn, and you must log in to fix it.
- Be wary of links in emails. Don't assume that the link is going to take you where you think it will.
- Or just don't click links at all. Instead of clicking a link to one of your online services, manually type their address into your browser instead. Or pick up the phone and give them a call.
- If it sounds suspicious, it probably is. If you didn't buy a lottery ticket, you didn't win the lottery.
- Don't assume a fancy website means that a site is reputable. This is a rule to follow when shopping online, too.
Anti-virus software and web browsers will help you to sniff out phishing scams. What better reason to keep them up to date?
4. Use better passwords
We all know the importance of using strong passwords and not re-using them. But it can be difficult, since strong passwords are so much harder to remember. There are three things to try to make your life easier:
- Think in terms of passphrases instead of passwords. A sentence of eight random words is easier to remember - and type - than a password of eight random characters, but it's just as hard to crack.
- Consider using a password manager. Don't save your passwords in your web browser, use a dedicated password manager instead. This saves all your logins under a single, more secure password. With BT Broadband, the True Key offers exactly this feature and is worth trying out. Alternatively, take a look at LastPass or 1Password, both of which are free.
- Use two factor authentication. A large and growing number of services offer two factor authentication. When you log in you need to enter both your password and a second, unique code sent to your phone via an app or text message. It's a lot more secure.
5. Keep an eye on your privacy
Finally, keep an eye on how much information you're sharing online. If you use social networks you're probably sharing a lot more than you realise. Check the Privacy section in Facebook and other services to lock them down, and make sure your kids do this, too.
And speaking of kids, most broadband providers offer some form of parental controls that you can use to manage what people can see, or how long they can go online. These are worth setting up, but remember that they are by no means foolproof.