You can do almost anything online nowadays; banking, shopping and communicating is as easy as clicking a button.
But it can be just as easy for cyber criminals to access your personal information – and with disastrous consequences if they do.
Internet security is something we should all take seriously. And a little knowledge is all it takes to stay safe online.
How hackers access your information
Criminals love the internet – it allows them to pry into the lives of the unwary, steal information, and even commit fraud and empty bank accounts.
It’s surprisingly easy to be tricked by scammers, but a few steps can keep you safe online and protect your data and identity.
Internet hackers can gain access to your personal information in a few ways:
• Spam email, where cyber criminals send out vast amounts of unsolicited emails from an unknown source, in the hope that out of the millions of spam emails they send, a few will fool the unwary.
• Via an on online shopping service that sells a product or service but has no intention of ever delivering.
• Sneaking in to your computer in the form of a virus or malware.
A phishing email is when hackers pose as a legitimate website and ask you for your personal details.
These emails usually take the form of someone you would consider a trusted service, like a bank. However, legitimate services will never ask for your personal information over email - never.
If you receive an email asking for any kind of personal details, mark it as spam and don’t respond, not even to tell them off, as that will flag up your account as active.
Ultimately, the golden rule of internet security is never open an email attachment, never click a link to a website from an unknown source, and always be suspicious of any email that you weren't expecting to receive.
Five scams to steal your identity
Online shopping scams
If you're nervous about shopping online, safeguard your privacy by choosing to shop only with reputable, well-known websites. Stick to either high street shops with an online presence (Debenhams, Boots, etc) or well-known online retailers like Amazon or Etsy.
However, if there's something you really must have that isn't sold at any of the above, check the following before you share any of your payment details.
• Check the website has a contact page and call the number to check it is real. Think of a question to ask about the product and if they give you a satisfactory answer, that’s a lot more reassuring than not having any response or a very vague one.
• Only enter your payment card details if the webpage shows a padlock symbol in the address bar or web browser frame – and make sure the webpage address begins with https rather than the standard http. The S stands for secure and means all communication between your browser and the website are encrypted.
• They have a verified PayPal account, preferably a business account. If you pay into a personal PayPal account, you might be stranded if the product isn’t delivered.
If the above all comes back clean, check the site with a reviews site like trustpilot.com - you'll quickly see if the store has been honouring purchases or sending through inferior goods.
A computer virus is spread via email and can do all kinds of damage, like deleting data or locking your computer so you can no longer access it.
Likewise, malware - or malicious software - can come in the form of a virus or a software application that steals your personal data. This type is called spyware.
The best way to protect your computer is to install antivirus software that includes an anti-malware application.
Free antivirus software is available to download online, but should be regularly updated.
To ensure you have the latest version, choose a program that automatically updates itself.
Discover our top three free antivirus programs
The perfect password
Our online passwords are often our weakest points. It’s tempting to choose ones that are easy to remember, but they’re also easy for others to uncover and exploit.
To protect yourself from password theft:
• Use a different password for every account
• Mix random numbers, letters and special characters (*, ! or ?).
• Never enter your password in public where someone can see what you’re typing.
• Store your online passwords in a secure, offline location and look them up when you need them.
Read our guide to creating the perfect password
Safeguard your computer and home wi-fi
Secure your home wi-fi network with a strong password to stop drive-by hackers from logging onto your home wi-fi network.
Install anti-virus software on your PC and set it to update automatically. Perform weekly scans to prevent viruses and other malware from infecting your computer and stealing your private information.
Turn on your computer’s built-in firewall to stop malicious threats via the internet.
Avoid public wi-fi networks
If possible, avoid using public wi-fi networks.
Fake wi-fi hotspots are easily set up and once you connect, criminals can then steal your usernames and passwords to access your accounts.
Even if a wi-fi hotspot is genuine, the private information you send back and forth across the internet may be not encrypted and therefore can be intercepted by those with criminal intent.
Protect your main email account
Create a separate webmail account to use with social networking, shopping sites and other sites you’ve registered with, as these are more likely to be targeted by scammers.
That way, you can protect your main email account, which may include banking or other sensitive personal information, from spam and other phishing attacks.
And avoid linking accounts – for example when websites allow you to use your Google login on their site. While this is convenient, if one account is compromised, all your linked accounts will be at risk.
Some websites use pop-ups – small windows that open automatically when you visit a webpage. Some may contain malware or phishing scams, so it’s best to block these in your web browser’s security settings.
Cookies – small files that allow a website to identify you – can leave your personal information vulnerable to identity thieves.
You can choose to block all websites that you visit from using cookies or allow cookies only on websites that you trust – look for this in your web browser’s settings.
Turn off password saving and auto complete
Browsers save your passwords and other personal details that you’ve entered into a website form, then automatically fill in this information when you next visit the site.
Always turn this option off in your web browser settings before using a shared or public computer as it gives complete access to your accounts.
Always log out of your accounts and delete your browsing history when you’ve finished using a public computer.
Private web browsing
Use your web browser’s private browsing mode, as this means you can surf the internet without generating a browsing history.
To prevent websites and advertisers from tracking your online activities, turn on the ‘do not track’ option in your web browser’s settings.
Alternatively, use a search engine called DuckDuckGo, which does not store information about what you search for or where you go.
Your rights online
If the worst happens, remember you do have rights.
Every online service should have a clearly stated Terms and Conditions page that tells you everything you need to know about the company’s returns and refunds policy. Read it.
Credit card theft is rare if you take the proper precautions, but still happens. Fortunately, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 protects you for credit card purchases between £100 and £30,000.
If you feel you need further protection, some credit card providers offer purchase protection programs.
Being vigilant about internet security might seem like a full-time job, but once you know what to look for it becomes second nature.