Have you ever received spam email from any of your friends and later another email from them saying their email account had been hacked? Hackers are increasingly targeting not only email accounts but also Facebook, blog, and bank accounts. Once they hack into any of these accounts, they can gain access to your personal details, send spam emails to all your contacts or steal your money. Worse, they can change the passwords of your accounts and lock you out.

Blog Tyrant, a successful blogger, reported that his Facebook and email accounts were hacked recently. So even if you are an experienced internet user, the danger from hackers is real and you may be the next to be attacked. If you have been lax about protecting yourself from online attack so far, it’s time to make a change.

Here are nine effective tips to improve your online security and protect you from hackers.

1. Use anti-virus software and update it regularly
Use free anti-virus programs such as Microsoft Security Essentials (microsoft.com/en-in/security_essentials/Default.aspx) or AVG (freeavg.com/?lng=in-en&cmpid=free) or paid programs such as McAfee or Norton. Set up your antivirus program to download updates automatically.

2. Update your internet browser (Firefox, Internet Explorer or Google Chrome)
Always download the latest updates from your internet browser immediately because many of the updates are security patches meant to fix vulnerabilities in their software.

3. Use secure HTTPS URL
HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) creates a secure channel over an insecure network and prevents hackers from gaining access to sensitive information in your online accounts.

Check your Facebook account and if the URL starts with “http” instead of “https”, change the settings of your account. Log in to your Facebook account and click on Account > Account Settings > Settings > Account Security > Change > Secure Browsing (https) > Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible. Select this option and click on “Save” below. You can make similar changes in all your other online accounts.

Firefox users can download a Firefox add-on called HTTPS Everywhere (eff.org/https-everywhere) that automatically opens secure pages of Facebook, Twitter and other popular websites.

4. Use different usernames and passwords for every account
You are at great risk if you use the same username and password for your email account, Facebook, Twitter and other accounts. If so, immediately log in and change your usernames and passwords. Use a different username and password for every online account. In addition, whenever you register for a new email list or online forum, use a different username and password.

5. Use complex passwords
Never use your name or birthday as part of your password. Make sure your password is more than ten characters long and contains a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols, especially for your key online accounts such as email, Facebook, blog, Paypal and online banking accounts. An example of a strong password is “Ro+N&St_Mb8”.

6. Use complex usernames
Your usernames should be almost as complex as your passwords. Stop using your name or email address as your username.

7. Change your passwords
In addition to using complex passwords and using a different password for every account, you should change your password every month. Make sure you save your various usernames and passwords in a secure place and update them regularly.

8. Avoid public online networks and internet cafés
If you use free public Wi-Fi networks, hackers can steal your Facebook and Twitter passwords using a free Firefox plug-in. It’s equally risky to use computers in an internet café.

As already mentioned, one way to minimize the risk of being hacked is to use secure HTTPS pages. Another option is to use on-screen keyboards. (Click on Start > All Programs > Accessories > Ease of Access > On-Screen Keyboard.) If you travel a lot, consider investing in a mobile internet connection.

9. Check your email account for hackers
If you use Gmail, you can monitor your account by clicking on “Details” next to “Last account activity” at the bottom of your Gmail page. It gives information about your account usage including location, IP address and date and time of access.

10. Never send passwords or sensitive information by email
If someone has hacked your email account, they can easily gain access to any important information in your emails. Therefore, never send information such as passwords or bank account details by email. If absolutely necessary, send it in a zipped and password-protected attached file.

If you are a regular internet user, you cannot afford to be complacent about the risk of attack from hackers. If your online accounts are hacked, your online business will be seriously damaged. Since you can only minimize the risk and cannot eliminate it completely, take care to back up your computer files, emails and online content regularly.

19 October 2011

Rohi Shetty is a medical doctor, Vipassana meditator, writer, editor, translator and blogger. His short stories and articles have been published online and in print.

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