The five steps to enjoying a safe cyber-summer

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/jijomathaidesigners)

When planning your summer, along with arranging travel and booking hotels, you will probably take precautions to ensure you have sunscreen and bug spray on hand, and that you have measures in place to keep your passport and wallet safe, even if it just means keeping them in in your front pocket. What you may not have taken into account is the need to take cyber-precautions, even though cybercriminals want your money just as much as any pickpocket. If they can’t steal your money, they will steal your other information and find a way to sell it on the dark web.

To ensure you are as safe online as you are on the beach, here are a few practical tips to keep you safe online this summer.When planning your summer, along with arranging travel and booking hotels, you will probably take precautions to ensure you have sunscreen and bug spray on hand, and that you have measures in place to keep your passport and wallet safe, even if it just means keeping them in in your front pocket. What you may not have taken into account is the need to take cyber-precautions, even though cybercriminals want your money just as much as any pickpocket. If they can’t steal your money, they will steal your other information and find a way to sell it on the dark web.

To ensure you are as safe online as you are on the beach, here are a few practical tips to keep you safe online this summer.

1. Practice safe Wi-Fi

Wherever your travels take you this summer, you will want to stay connected. In order to do so, chances are you will be logging into public Wi-Fi access points. While many of these are perfectly safe, it’s worth remembering that people looking to steal your data can connect to and pass themselves off as an access point. You then connect to them as they connect you to the internet, enabling them to intercept all data between you and your online shopping site, bank, home security system or wherever else you browse to. So, it’s good practice to turn your Wi-Fi off until you can verify a legitimate connection. Simply by asking an establishment for the name of their Wi-Fi SSID before you connect, you will take a crucial step in ensuring your cyber safety.

As an added precaution, you should also consider installing VPN software on your devices so you can make secure, encrypted connections to a known service. There are a number of low-cost/no-cost services that will ensure that your connections are always protected.

If you are having guests in your home over the summer, set up your home Wi-Fi with a separate network for them to use. They can still browse the internet while keeping them separate from your internal home network. They will also automatically reconnect to that guest portal the next time they are in the vicinity of your router.

2. Upgrade your passwords

One of the biggest mistakes people make is using the exact same password on all their online accounts. While remembering a unique password for each website or app we use may be an impossible feat, there are measures you can take to ensure your safety.

A first option is to use a password vault that stores the username and password for each account, so all you have to remember is the single password for that application and it takes care of the rest. A second possibility is to create a tier of applications and create increasingly complex passwords for each group. For example, one set of passwords for social media, another for emails, and another for online banking.

Creating strong, memorable passwords isn’t as hard as it seems. For example, use the first letters of a sentence or song lyric that you are familiar with, add some capitalisation and replace some of the letters with numbers or special characters and you’ve got a pretty secure password. Just set a reminder on your calendar to change those passwords every few weeks.

Don’t click on links in advertisements sent to your email or posted on websites unless you check them first. As tempting as it might be, never open an email or click on an attachment from someone you don’t know, especially when it includes an enticing subject line, such as a cash reward or a bill for something you didn’t purchase — no matter how much you might want to see that receipt for the diamond ring you don’t remember buying.

Take a minute to double-check emails from people you know as well. Compromised accounts are regularly used to send malware to individuals in their contact list because recipients are far more likely to open those emails and attachments. If an email message from someone you know seems strange or out of character, check with them first before you open it.

When it comes to websites, always double-check they look professional. Links should be accurate and fast. Are there lots of popups? Is there bad grammar, unclear descriptions or misspelled words? If you hover your mouse over a link, you should be able to see the real URL. Does it replace letters with numbers, such as amaz0n.com, or is it unusually long? If so, don’t click on it. These are all signs of a phishing attack, which can ultimately lead to malicious links or attachments.

4. Use protection against viruses and malware

Install reputable and well-reviewed antimalware software across your devices, keep it updated and run it regularly. Because no software is 100 per cent effective, set up a schedule where you load and run a second or third security system to scan your device or network. Many options provide a free online version or let you run a free demo for a brief period of time.

For more advanced users, also consider maintaining a clean virtual machine on your laptop or desktop, which you can switch to for your more security-sensitive browsing or to perform online transactions where security is paramount.

5. Monitor your social media

Set up strict privacy controls that only allow preselected people to see your page. This will prevent cybercriminals from accessing information about you, which they can then leverage to tailor messages to you in the hopes of increasing chances that you will click on a link.

When travelling, limit your vacation messages on social sites. While it can be fun to tell everyone where you are going or what you are doing, that information also lets folks know that you are gone, which can put your home at risk of robbery.

For those with a more open social media profile, remember that cybercriminals often set up fake pages or accounts and then request that you add them as a friend. There are two quick things you can do to protect yourself from criminals using fake credentials hoping to steal data or trick you into linking to an infected site: First, always look at the homepage of the person making the request. If you don’t know them or anything on their site seems odd, dismiss their request. Second, if the person making the request is someone you know, check to see if they are already a friend of yours. If so, there’s a significant possibility that their account has been hijacked or duplicated.

Don’t let the bad guys ruin your summer fun. Remember that you are in charge of your own cybersecurity; no one else is going to do it for you. Take the necessary steps before you leave for vacation and remain diligent throughout your trip. Using good sense and good hygiene will ensure you stay cyber safe, wherever you are.

Paul Anderson, Head of UK and Ireland, Fortinet