Tips to Stay Safe Online

The internet has become an intrinsic part of our lives. From socialising, to finance, to work, and beyond, we couldn’t turn back now if we wanted to.


It’s easy to forget, though, how vulnerable we can be in the online world. Indeed, while online theft, hacking, and malware can have very real consequences, they may not be as visible as real-world crime.


This might explain why 50% of people take over 45 days to install software security updates. These updates, among other things, help prevent theft. But it’s fair to say that 50% of people would not leave a broken lock in their house unfixed for 45 days.


This negligence spreads to other areas of online use too, with 30 percent of phishing emails still being opened according to a recent report. (Incidentally, we wrote a comprehensive guide to phishing email scams and how to avoid them.)


Given that 45% of the world's population now uses a smartphone, it should come as little surprise that hackers are increasingly turning their attention to mobile devices.


Many data breaches can be prevented by 2FA (two-factor authentication like a password plus a fingerprint). In fact, many high-profile attacks could’ve easily been reduced with 2FA, including high-profile ones like the compromised data of 145 million Equifax customers.


Going into more mundane examples, a survey from 2016 found that 1 in 4 Wi-Fi hotspots do not use any encryption whatsoever to protect user data.


These stats can be scary, especially when we consider how much we live online. But this guide will cover different aspects of our online experience and how to better protect ourselves.  

Why we need to stay safe online

Dangers online range from invasions of privacy, to damaging your computer, stealing personal information, and theft.


We mentioned phishing emails above: these scams tend to take the form of emails posing as someone else, to source information such as passwords or to infect your computer or phone with malware.


Malware can take many forms, including viruses (which infect, damage or infiltrate your computer); spyware (created to source information, or “spy” on victims); or hybrid attacks (which combine various malware).


We have a full guide to malware on our blog, outlining the various forms of malware attack and how to avoid them.

Identity theft

There’s also the danger of identity theft when online. Stolen data can be used to pose as someone else online. One stolen piece of information can be used to gather another – a social media site password can lead to an email address, which can lead to a home address and so on.


From there, an identity thief can gain access to your financial accounts to syphon money, create a new identity with your debit and credit details and even apply for government benefits.


Find out more in our guide to identity theft.

How to stay safe on social media

Social media is now so ubiquitous that we break it down into our own sub-categories, whether that’s family or groups of friends (Facebook), news and debate (Twitter) or even career-building (LinkedIn).


It’s good to be aware, though, of how much information we’re sharing online, and how much data is stored in our social media accounts. Here are some tips to enjoying social media safely:


1. Watch out for personal messages


These could be friend requests from strangers, or messages from hackers posing as people you know. A good rule of thumb is not to accept requests from people you don’t know, watch out for messages out of the blue and avoid clicking on suspicious buttons or links.


2. Vary your passwords

It’s generally a good idea to use different passwords for different sites. As you might expect, this protects you if one of your passwords becomes compromised. Just as it would be unsafe for one key to work on your car, workplace and home, a single password for all social sites is not advised.


3. Don’t give away too much personal information


Earlier, we mentioned identity theft and how fake personas can be built cumulatively with every new piece of personal information. The process of browsing online behaviour to accumulate valuable information (birth dates, addresses and so on) is known as “social engineering”. Just remember that while most shared information is harmless, it’s often not entirely private.


4. Lock your devices


Remember to keep your phone and computer password protected. The most valuable asset in a stolen electronic device is not the device itself, but the information inside. Keep that information safe.


5. Don’t be afraid to block and mute


If you get a suspicious message or friend request, you can always report, block and/or mute the correspondence. At worst, it will slow down and discourage their efforts.

How to stay safe when shopping online

It seems we’re all shopping online now: in fact, the industry is expected to hit a staggering $4 trillion in 2020. As shopping online gets easier and more convenient, there’s no sign of that number declining either.


Naturally, this represents opportunities for scammers. Here are some steps for safer online shopping:


1. Don’t use public Wi-Fi to shop


As mentioned earlier, a lot of public Wi-Fi services are not encrypted, meaning that their security is lacking. Only shop online using a trusted network – ideally your home one.


2. Keep an eye on credit and debit card statements


If you have been victim of a scam, the sooner you find out the better. And cybercrime related to online shopping often shows up on your credit card bills first.


3. Update your browser when prompted

We often talk about the merits of updating – that’s because these updates are frequently made to address new security threats. So this is something you shouldn’t delay, especially if you use the browser to shop online.

How to stay safe when banking online

Bank robberies are just as common as they were in the old days, except now, they target customers instead of banks.


Typical cybercrimes involving banks include cloning banks’ websites, sending phishing emails to bank customers and trying to access customers’ online bank and credit card accounts. Here are some ways to protect yourself against these crimes:


1. Watch out for copycat emails


A common scam is to send an email posing as a bank, in the hope that the recipient will reveal important or sensitive information through their response. Be wary of emails asking for information that the bank would already have, or ones that arrive unexpectedly and have language or requests inconsistent with previous bank correspondence.


2. Set up account notifications (if you can)


In many cases, you can ask your bank to contact you in the event of unusual activity (large lodgments or withdrawals, for instance). This is a good way to monitor suspicious activity.


3. Always log out when you’re finished


Most online banking logs out users after inactivity or when you leave. But you should keep an eye on this in case it’s not automated: naturally, an account left open is like a wide-open door to your virtual safe.

How to stay safe when using dating websites and apps

Online and app dating are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the modern age. In fact, one major survey of American couples found that 40% of couples now meet online.


This is great news for many people, of course, who might not have met their partners without online dating. But it also brings its share of security complications.


In the natural world, a catfish is a type of fish that’s sometimes known to mimic other breeds. It’s the basis for the term “catfishing”, whereby someone pretends to be something they’re not in an online dating scenario. This could be as relatively harmless as using a photo of someone else, or it could be more elaborate, with people using whole new personas to reel in potential victims for a scam.


Here are some practical tips for online dating:


1. Fact check


You can search via photo on Google to ensure that someone is using a legitimate picture. Go to Google Images and click on the camera icon, then upload the image to search. Obviously if it’s a stock image or turns up in multiple social networks, that’s a bad sign.


2. Meet in public 


When meeting for the first time, choose a café or a bar to meet. There’s safety in crowds. Tell friends where you’re going. And do not have a first date in your home!


3. Listen to your gut


Often when something feels off, that’s because it is. Listen to your instincts if you’re feeling nervous about someone you met online.

How to stay safe while gaming online

Online gaming has comfortably overtaken local (or “couch”) multiplayer gaming, as Wi-Fi speeds get faster and every console can now allow you to play against anyone around the world.


For the most part, it’s a harmless, joyous escape, but there are some steps to take to make sure you’re gaming safe…


1. Don’t share your real name publicly


Most gamers are there to play and have fun, but it’s safe practice to not use a real name or picture. You might be giving ammunition to scammers or bullies.


2. Don’t forget the mute button


If you’re concerned about bullying, or you’re not comfortable with “trash talk”, remember that the option is always there to silence the voice and play in peace.


3. Don’t share personal information


This might seem obvious to say, but you’d be surprised how many people give out details on their names, addresses and even workplaces in online conversations.

How to help your children be safer online

You wouldn’t want your children talking to strangers in the real world, and the same applies online.


Just like warning against strangers in the real world, you can discuss internet safety without scaring your kids.

How to talk to your kids about online safety

Here are some steps to take when discussing online safety with kids…


1. Plan the conversation


Before chatting, it’s worthwhile reading up on some topics, like phishing, malware and cyber bullying. (As mentioned earlier, our blog has extensive information on malware and phishing.) Make sure your kids know they can talk to you about anything they’ve encountered online.


2. Start the conversation as early as you can


Ideally, you should have a conversation about online safety before the child has their own smartphone, computer or tablet.


3. Have regular chats about online activities


Talk to your child regularly about their favourite sites, social network channels and apps.


4. Clarify with metaphors


Remind them of the real-world implications of being lax online. Sharing a password is like giving someone a key to your home, for instance; telling a home address is like advertising it to strangers on a billboard; and so on.

Practical tips for parents

On a practical level, you can…

  • Establish ground rules about internet use – the amount of time online, surfing in a shared room at first (like a kitchen or living room), and so on.
  • Use parental controls to limit internet use on certain sites.
  • Use effective security software on devices to keep the whole family safe.

Internet safety rules in 2020

Because the internet is endlessly evolving, so do the rules for staying safe online. Safer Internet Day is an annual, global event  highlighting safe, smart use of the web.

  • Modern, good-practice steps to online safety include:
  • Regularly update passwords and use 2FA
  • Regularly update software
  • Beware of phishing scams
  • Beware of public networks
  • Use cybersecurity software like Clario

Further reading

We have several blog posts to help you live a safer life online, including our Top 15 Internet Safety Rules.

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