How to protect your privacy online
Revised March 21, 2021
Worried about how much of your private information is on the internet and vulnerable to theft or misuse? You’re not alone. Online privacy is an important issue.
But there are steps you can take to help manage and protect your financial and personal information while you visit your favorite social media, news, and entertainment sites.
Tips for internet privacy
Here are some ways you can boost your online privacy.
Limit the personal information you share on social media
A smart way to help protect your privacy online? Don’t overshare on social media. Providing too much information on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could make it easier for cybercriminals to obtain identifying information, which could allow them to steal your identity or to access your financial information.
For example, could an identity thief determine your high school mascot or your mother’s maiden name from digging through your Facebook account? This information is sometimes used as security questions to change passwords on financial accounts.
Unfortunately, many people don’t take this advice. In a 2018 study, the Identity Theft Resource Center found that approximately 52 percent of respondents shared personally identifying information through social media sites.
And that’s just the start of the oversharing. The same study found that about 48 percent of respondents shared information about their children, while nearly 33 percent shared information about their location. A total of 42 percent of respondents shared information about their travel plans through social media.
To protect your online privacy, ignore the “About Me” fields in your social media profiles. You don’t have to let people know what year or where you were born — which could make you an easier target for identity theft. Explore different privacy settings, too. You might want to limit the people who can view your posts to those you’ve personally invited.
Create strong passwords, too, for your social media profiles to help prevent others from logging into them in your name. This means using a combination of at least 12 numbers, special characters, and upper- and lower-case letters. And never use personal, easy-to-guess information — such as your birthdate or pet’s name — as your password.
Browse in incognito or private mode
If you don’t want your computer to save your browsing history, temporary internet files, or cookies, do your web surfing in private mode.
Web browsers today offer their own versions of this form of privacy protection. In Chrome, it’s called Incognito Mode. Firefox calls its setting Private Browsing, and Internet Explorer uses the name InPrivate Browsing for its privacy feature. When you search with these modes turned on, others won’t be able to trace your browsing history from your computer.
But these private modes aren’t completely private. When you’re searching in incognito or private mode, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can still see your browsing activity. If you are searching on a company computer, so can your employer. The websites you visit can also track you.
So, yes, incognito browsing does have certain benefits. But it’s far from the only tool available to help you maintain your privacy while online. Anonymous search engines and virtual private networks can bolster your online privacy.
Use a different search engine
If you’re like many web surfers, you rely heavily on Google as your search engine. But you don’t have to. Privacy is one reason people prefer to use anonymous search engines. This type of search engine doesn’t collect or share your search history or clicks. Anonymous search engines can also block ad trackers on the websites you visit.
Use a virtual private network
A virtual private network (VPN) gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. VPNs mask your Internet Protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable.
Using a VPN is especially important when you’re on public Wi-Fi at a library, coffee shop, or other public location. A VPN will make it more difficult for cybercriminals to breach your online privacy and access your personal information.
You can find many free VPN solutions, but it could make more sense to pay for a service from a trusted security provider if you want the maximum amount of privacy protection while online.
Be careful where you click
One of the ways in which hackers compromise your online privacy is through phishing attempts. In phishing, scammers try to trick you into providing valuable financial or personal information. They’ll often do this by sending fake emails that appear to be from banks, credit card providers, or other financial institutions. Often, these emails will say that you must click on a link and verify your financial information to keep your account from being frozen or closed.
Don’t fall for these scams. If you click on a phishing link, you could be taken to a spoofed webpage that looks like the homepage of a bank or financial institution. But when you enter in your account information, you’ll be sending it to the scammers behind the phishing attempt, not any bank, credit union, or credit card company. Before clicking on suspicious links, hover your cursor over the link to view the destination URL. If it doesn’t match the financial website you use, don’t click.
Also, remember that banks or other financial institutions will never ask you to provide account or financial information through an email. If you receive such an email and you are wary, log in directly to your financial provider’s online account portal. You can then check to see if there are problems with your account. Or call the financial provider yourself to ask if there are any problems with your account — using the customer-service number from one of your statements or the provider’s website, not the one included in the suspect email you received.
Secure your mobile devices, too
Many of us spend more time surfing the web, answering emails, and watching videos on our smartphones than we do on our laptops. It’s important, then, to put as much effort into protecting our online privacy on our phones and tablets as on our computers.
To start, make sure to use a passcode to lock your phone. It might seem like a hassle to enter a code every time you want to access your phone’s home screen. But this passcode could offer an extra layer of protection if your phone is lost or stolen. Make sure your passcode is complex. Don’t use your birthdate, your house number, or any other code that thieves might be able to guess.
Use caution when downloading apps. These games and productivity tools could come embedded with dangerous viruses. Only buy games from legitimate sources.
Use the same caution, too, when searching the web or reading emails on your mobile devices as you do when using your laptop or desktop computer.
Don’t ignore software updates, either. These updates often include important protections against the latest viruses. If you continue to ignore them, you could be leaving your smartphone’s operating system and programs vulnerable to attack.
Use quality antivirus software
Finally, always install antivirus software on all your devices. This software can keep hackers from remotely taking over your computer, accessing your personal and financial information, and tracking your location.
And once you install this software, don’t forget about it. Manufacturers frequently update their virus protection software as a defense against the latest malware, spyware, and other viruses. Install updates as soon as they become available.
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