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Don't trust strangers online
Protective software can only go so far. Unsafe behaviors can override that protection.
Protecting your identity

Practicing online safety

A healthy dose of skepticism is key to online safety. If you find that a little hard to believe, good.

Skepticism is only half the story. The other half is protective software. Once you protect your computer, make sure you don't inadvertently override it by making human errors. Let the answers to these six questions guide your online activities.

6 safety questions:
Where am I?
If you are on your home computer, check to ensure you're protected: Do you see your firewall icon? Have you updated your antivirus software and run a system scan recently? If you are using your computer on the go, are you on an encrypted wireless network?

If you're not on your computer, then hold off on shopping, creating accounts and logging into financial sites. When using a public computer you have no assurance of safety. So whenever possible, only use public computers for surfing, never shopping or otherwise entering personal information.

If you're just going to surf or play a game, "You should be able to do that with perfect safety," says David Marcus, security research and communications manager at McAfee. On the other hand, accessing work files or sending sensitive documents by e-mail on a public computer may not be a good idea. "If there is job or financial information on there, you have to determine if you would want to potentially expose it," he says.

If you must conduct private business publicly, know the dangers and be extra vigilant after you leave. One of the main dangers of entering sensitive information into a public computer is that someone may have installed a keylogger onto the machine that tracks your keystrokes during log in. Jennifer Leach, consumer education specialist at the FTC, shares this homemade encryption solution to foil keyloggers: Have several browsers open at once and hop between screens as you log strokes, only feeding in one or two characters per screen until you've finished logging in.

"It takes a long time, but I've been doing that at the library and when using public Wi-Fi at hotels or in coffee shops," she says. "Never put your personal financial information on a public computer."

Of course, the old rules of public surfing still apply as well: Close all browser windows when you are done so someone can't hop on the computer after you are gone and get into your accounts. And watch out for shoulder surfers, just like at ATMs.

As wonderful as encryption and security software is, we can override it through behavior. Which is why the next questions come in handy.

-- Posted: April 21, 2008
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