Back-to-school time is a fertile period for scam artists to target college students. Take these steps to help hack-proof your dorm room.
Heading back to the dorms? There’s a chance cybercriminals and hackers are waiting, eager to run up charges on your credit cards, access your bank accounts, and snoop on your personal information so that they can steal your identity.
Yes, back-to-school time is a fertile period for scam artists eager to boost their bank accounts at the expense of college students. Fortunately, you can take several steps to hack-proof your dorm room — and protect your personal information, bank accounts and credit cards — this school year.
It requires just a bit of planning and tech know-how.
Here are 10 tips for boosting your online safety as the school year resumes.
1. Watch for phishing scams
The biggest threat to your online security this year? Phishing scams.
In this scam, cybercriminals send email messages or texts that look like they’re from a legitimate source. You might get an email that looks like it’s from your bank or credit card provider. Maybe you get a text that looks like it’s from your university.
The message will vary, but one that looks like it’s coming from your bank might warn you of a suspicious log-in to your account. One from a scammer masquerading as your credit card provider might say your account is in danger of being shut down. A fake message from your university might warn you that you haven’t made a required tuition payment or that you failed to register for enough classes.
All of them will ask that you click on a link. If you do, you’ll be taken to a web page — that again looks like it’s from a financial services firm, your university, or another service provider — asking for personal information, everything from your name, address, and Social Security number to your bank account number, credit card information, and password.
If you provide this information? You’ll give a scammer access to your online bank accounts or credit card portals. And these scammers can then drain your bank accounts or run up purchases on your credit cards. Or maybe the cybercriminals behind these scams will use the personal information you’ve provided to open credit cards or take out loans in your name.
The key here is to be cautious when opening email messages and texts. Never click on links unless you are sure they are legitimate. Look at the URLs of these links: Often, they give away that the links don’t lead to the credit card company, bank, or service provider that is supposedly sending the message.
Remember, too, that your credit card company or bank won’t contact you by email or text and demand your account information or password. If you get such a message and you’re worried that there might be trouble with your accounts? Call your bank or credit card company at its legitimate customer service number and ask.
2. Be leery of public Wi-Fi
You might enjoy surfing the web at your university’s student union, library, or coffee shop. Be careful, though: It’s easy for cybercriminals to snoop on you when you’re using free public Wi-Fi. These hackers may be able to see what websites you visit, messages you send, videos you watch, and files you download.
And if you’re visiting your bank accounts and credit card portals through public WI-Fi? They might be able to steal your log-in and password information, giving them access to your online credit card and bank accounts.
Avoiding this trap is simple: Never use public Wi-Fi to access sensitive financial accounts. If you want to transfer money or pay your credit card bill online, use a secure internet connection. If you’re using public Wi-Fi, limit your online time to checking the weather, finding the hours of your favorite restaurant, or reading stories from the campus newspaper.
To boost your security, consider using a VPN — short for virtual private network — which can encrypt the information you send and receive online while browsing the web.
3. Check your online bank accounts and credit card portals
It’s important to catch cybercriminals quickly. One way to do this is to log onto your online bank accounts and credit card portals every day.
Look for suspicious purchases or withdrawals. If you see purchases you don’t remember making, call your credit card provider immediately. If you act quickly, you won’t have to pay for any unauthorized buys. You’ll also be able to cancel your credit card and receive a new one before the thief who’s broken into your account can do more damage.
4. Pay for items with credit cards, not debit cards
Ordering a late-night pizza and don’t have any cash? Pay for it with your credit card, not a debit card. Why? If someone steals your credit card information, you can easily dispute the illegal charges and have them removed from your bill. You won’t be responsible for the charges. You can also cancel that card and receive a replacement one that hasn’t been compromised.
But it someone steals your debit card information and drains the bank account connected to it? That money is gone, even if you call your bank and dispute the purchase.
Paying for items with cash is the safest move. Paying with credit cards comes in second.
5. Keep track of your devices
It’s easy to get distracted when you’re studying, rushing off to class, or hanging out with friends. But it’s important to keep track of your smartphones, laptops, and other devices.
Just consider the problems you might face if you lose your smartphone. If a thief finds it, that person might be able to use your phone to read your email messages, steal your bank account information, or log onto any other sites you regularly visit.
This could lead to the scammer using your credit card to make online purchases, using your account information to buy items from your favorite gaming sites or taking over your email account to send spam messages to your friends.
The lesson? Always keep track of your devices. And make sure to password-protect your smartphone and laptop so that if you do lose them, it will be more difficult for others to log onto them.
6. Create unique, complex passwords
That brings us to passwords. You already know that strong passwords are important to keep snoops from hacking into your online bank accounts, credit card portals and email accounts. But it’s always important to reiterate the basic password rules.
Use passwords that are difficult for others to guess, ones that include a combination of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters and symbols. Or use a passphase, a string of words that you can remember, but others would find hard to guess.
Don’t use the same password at multiple sites. And don’t share your passwords with others, even your dormmates and college friends.
7. Enable two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication is another way to protect your most sensitive online accounts, such as your online bank accounts and credit card portals.
Basically, this requires that people have at least two pieces of information before they can log onto your accounts. It’s a way to make it more difficult for hackers to break into your accounts.
Here’s how it works: Say you want to log onto your online bank account. You’d first enter your password and username as always. Your bank would then send a token — usually a six-digit code — to your phone or other device. You can’t log into your account until you enter that code.
Two-factor authentication does make it a bit more time-consuming to log into accounts. But this extra step could keep hackers who have guessed your username and password from accessing your sensitive accounts.
8. Be careful with library computers
Be cautious, too, when using the computers in your school’s campus libraries. These computers are a convenience when you need to check emails or finish your latest research paper. But using them to visit sensitive financial sites is a mistake.
You don’t know how well-protected these computers are. They could be vulnerable to cybercriminals who could steal your password and log-in information to sites across the web.
And if you do use these computers, make sure to sign out of any sites you log onto. If you visit your online credit card portal and leave the library without logging out, the next person sitting in front of that computer could gain access to your credit card information.
9. Don’t overshare on social media
It’s tempting to share too much information on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter. But be careful: Oversharing could put you at risk.
Criminals often monitor social media accounts. If you share that you are going to a weekend music festival, these criminals, if they know your location, might be tempted to break into your dorm room. After all, they know you are going to be out of town.
If you want to share the news about the music festival? Wait until you get back to post.
10. Boost your privacy settings:
If you want to increase your privacy when using your smartphone, it's time to adjust your device's settings.
Go to your phone's privacy settings and turn off location services. This will prevent apps from tracking your location. Also, don't let apps share data. Some apps will ask if they can use information stored on your phone. Don't allow this.
And when you download apps, make sure to set the highest privacy settings on each of them. This is especially important with social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook.
Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.
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