There isn't a soul on this planet who doesn't want their home to feel like a fortress. Your home is a sanctuary, a place where you can rest your head and feel safe and secure. And while most of us live free of any real threat of home invasion, there are other ways for ill-minded individuals to enter your personal space and take away your peace of mind, especially in the digital age.
Hackers, scammers, thieves, and many others lurk in the dark corners of the internet. They may not be targeting you directly, but they are targeting people just like you. The wrong click, or the wrong email open, and you're found. Then all you can do is hold on tight and hope the damage isn't too bad.
If identity theft, computer viruses, and credit card fraud make you uneasy (which they should), take comfort knowing you're not completely defenseless. Hackers, while good at what they do, are in many ways relying on you to make a mistake to have success.
As a result, if you can learn about the mistakes they're expecting you to make, you can take steps to detect them and prevent hackers and other cybercriminals from reaching you.
Here is a detailed explanation of the easiest yet most effective things you can do to keep your home completely safe and secure as you make the most of the digital world.
How to Keep Your Home Internet Safe and Secure
There is indeed a near-infinite supply of tools you can use to keep your home internet safe and secure. Companies both large and small employ entire teams just to protect themselves. But when dealing with just you and your home, you can take a much simpler approach that will be far easier for you to implement and maintain.
Step 1: Secure Your Devices
You cannot keep yourself safe and secure if the devices you use to connect to the internet are not secure themselves. It's as simple as that. And it turns out that securing your devices is much easier than you might think. Take a look at the following things you can do to keep your devices safer:
Probably the easiest thing you can do to keep your devices secure is to make sure everything is password protected. This means setting up lock screens for your computer, tablet, phone, smart TV, and pretty much everything else that is connected to the internet.
At first, you may be thinking, "what a pain!" For those who use their devices on a near-constant basis, those extra few seconds required to put in a password can really slow you down. But think about it like this - your password is the first line of defense to your device.
When a hacker tries to get in and modify something (which they will), password-protected devices won't let them do anything without a password. If there is no password, they're already in. It's like building a castle with a moat and a drawbridge but then leaving the drawbridge down and the gate open. You're making your life easier because you don't need to raise and lower the bridge every time you want to get in, but you're also opening your door to any hacker or other cybercriminal looking for an easy score.
A few tips to keep in mind when setting passwords:
- Make them far more complicated than 123456 or ABCDEF. These are shockingly still some of the most common passwords, and these are the ones hackers will guess first.
- Also, don't make them something too personal, such as your birthday. These are also quite common and easily guessed. Also, if a hacker gets this information some other way, you're doomed.
- If possible, make different passwords for all your devices. This way, if one password gets compromised, you don't need to worry about your other devices. You can deal with one breach and then go from there.
It can get frustrating having to sign-in every time you pick up a device, and keeping track of all your different passwords can also be a pain. But the minor hassle doing this creates is well worth the peace of mind it will bring.
Adjust WiFi Settings
Your home internet connection is probably your most important utility. We use it for communication, work, entertainment, and so much more. Yet while all it lets us do makes us cherish our WiFi, we must never forget it's the entry point for cybercriminals. If we leave it exposed, cybercriminals can get in and do more damage than a "real-life" burglar.
Luckily, most people are aware of this, which is why routers come pre-encrypted and with passwords already built-in.
However, if you leave the factory defaults, you're elevating your level of risk. This is because hackers can use the factor network names to guess manufacturers, and then they can run passwords they know to be associated with that manufacturer.
It's a long shot, sure, but that's how hackers work. They take shots in the dark until something hits.
The easiest way to protect yourself is to change your network's SSID, the name of it, as well as the password.
Choose something difficult to guess (not your address, phone number, birthday, or 12345), and only give out the password to people who need it. Also, avoid sharing your internet connection with neighbors, since you don't know if they are going to practice the same security practices as you.
If you haven't already done this, you can change these settings by following the instructions in the manual that came with your router. If you can't find the manual, you can probably find a PDF version online, and if that doesn't work, check out this resource about how to update your router settings.
Virtual Private Networks
If you wanted to go a step further, you could also sign up for a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is software you install on your device that encrypts your internet connection even more.
The benefit of this is that it makes it appear you're not browsing from your home when you're online. This might confuse hackers and other cybercriminals and cause them to leave you alone. It also makes it more difficult for them to gain access to your network because there is another layer of security between you and them.
For most people, this might be overkill, but if you have reason to suspect you will be targeted, it might be worth it to take this step.
Get Anti-Virus Software
Another really easy thing you can do to make sure your devices are secured is to install anti-virus software.
Hardcore computer enthusiasts often don't like to hear this because they feel anti-virus software is too bulky and gets in the way of how they use their computers. But for your average person using their connected devices for normal, everyday things, it would be silly to not have an anti-virus program installed on your computer.
Anti-virus software will not only block unprovoked attacks coming from all different angles, but it will also help you be a more secure internet user.
It does this first by warning you about potentially dangerous sites before you go to them, something which will help you learn to spot sites where you could walk away infected. And it will also install a thick, tall wall between you and the bad guys since it will require you to verify any downloads and other changes made to the computer's memory.
This way, if a malicious program gets on your computer, you can find out before that program wipes your hard drive, or worse, steals all the important information you have on your computer.
There are a lot of different anti-virus programs out there you can choose from. McAfee and Norton are two of the most well-known, largely because they've been around for the longest. But there are some other options out there you can consider.
Macs, Phones and Tablets
Mac users have long bragged about the fact that "Macs don't get viruses." This statement is objectively false.
They do get viruses, they're just much less likely than other computers.
This is not only because the way Apple designs the Mac OS operating system makes it more difficult to hack, but it's also because there are considerably fewer Macs out there as compared to PCs, which means there's more bang for your buck as a hacker going after computers that run Windows.
But this doesn't mean Macs can't get viruses. Maybe you don't need a full-on anti-virus program, but you should install some extra layer of defense to make sure you're sufficiently protected. Also, Macs can't protect you against things such as email phishing and bad links. You are the one who ultimately clicks, and if you do this, it doesn't matter which type of computer you have.
As for phones, tablets, and other devices, the common school of thought up until now is that they are not at high risk, largely for the same reasons Macs aren't at risk. However, since pretty much the whole world has a smartphone now, and more and more people are using them to store valuable information such as credit card and bank information, hackers have gone small and started targeting phones and other devices.
Many smartphones these days come pre-loaded with some sort of virus defense system. But double-check, and if your phone is unprotected, you may want to consider downloading something onto your phone to make things a bit more secure.
Here's a bit more about some of the different anti-virus software available specifically for phones and tablets.
Keep Everything Updated
Don't ignore the messages on your phone or PC about updates. Yes, it's a bit of a pain to install them because it means you'll be without that device for a while, but it's worth the wait.
These updates are usually released when the developers discover some sort of a weakness in their operating system, and they send out an update to cover people before the hackers find out and do damage. So, make sure all your software is up-to-date.
Get an Ad Blocker
Pop-up ads have been the bane of internet users' existence since the beginning of the internet. Not only are they super annoying but they can also be dangerous. Anyone can pay for a pop-up, and if one jumps out at just the right second and you click on it by accident (something we all know can happen), you're done. Malware downloaded. Computer infected. Life over.
Okay, maybe it's not that dramatic. But you get the point.
Install an ad blocker to your browser, and most of this risk will go away. It will block almost all pop-up ads, and a lot of other on-screen ads too, which is nice.
It's easy to do, and if you encounter a trusted site that asks you to not use an ad blocker so that they can earn money on ad revenue and you can keep enjoying the content they produce, you can pause the ad blocker just for that page to keep browsing safely.
Step 2: Secure Your Accounts
After you've secured your devices, your home is pretty much internet safe and secure. However, there are other ways for online schemers to find their way into your digital life. Specifically, they can target certain accounts you use and then from there try to access your personal information.
Typically, what cybercriminals will do is target a large company and try to get as much information as they can. We've seen this in the past few years with the large hacks that took place at Target and Equifax.
If hackers do take this approach and succeed, there's not a ton you can do. But if you have the right defense set up, you can considerably limit the amount of damage that can be done from an attack.
Here are some ways to set up this type of defense:
Update Your Passwords
Every account needs a password, and while we know it's smart to have a different password for each one, most of us tire out after we create and remember one or two that we just use those for everything.
Do not do this.
Why? Because when you do this, it means anyone who gains access to your account now has access to all your accounts. But if you have different passwords, you would only have to worry about a hacker getting into one account, not all of them.
To help you do this, consider using a password manager such as Last Pass. This allows you to use a different password for all your accounts and then access them using a master password. It's a simple way to keep your online presence as secure as possible.
Set Use Two-Factor Authentication Whenever Possible
Many companies are now offering two-factor authentication. This sounds fancy and complicated, but all it means is that you have to verify your identity twice before gaining access to your account.
In most cases, this means using a password and then entering a code sent to your phone or email. It's an extra step and takes a few extra seconds to do, but it's infinitely more secure. A hacker can get your password, but what are the chances they get access to your phone, too? Unlikely.
A lot of banks and other financial institutions are heading in this direction because of how much more secure it is. So, go back to your accounts (while you're changing your password) and look to see if two-factor authentication is available. If it is, take the few seconds to set it up and your accounts will be that much more secure.
Set up Alerts and Notifications
Another thing you can and should do while updating and securing your accounts is set up alerts and notifications. This is especially smart for your banking and financial apps because, after all, what hackers are really after is money, of course.
Doing this will allow you to spot issues before they are an issue. For example, you can set it up so that you get a quick alert or text message after each transaction processed on your debit card. That way, if you get an alert that says you just bought $100 of who knows what at a gas station 2,000 miles away, you can get in touch with the bank, block the transaction, and immediately begin an investigation into what has happened.
If this seems intrusive to you, another option is to set up alerts for certain dollar amounts or geographic areas so that you can know if someone is using your card for things you wouldn't.
You'll also want to consider getting alerts for when your account is accessed from a unique device. It may be you, but there may come a time when it's not.
It's true alerts and notifications can't prevent that first instance of fraud or theft, but they can tune you in to what's happening much more quickly, which allows you to respond immediately and stop the damage while there's still a chance to reverse it.
Establish Privacy Settings
If you use social media, you may want to consider updating the privacy settings on your account to the most private however, this is a bit of a personal decision. For some people, having their social content reach new people is important, yet if this isn't important to you, it's best to take more control over who sees what you post and what people can see about you.
If you do need the settings to be more open, make sure you practice good sharing habits and be smart about the information you share (no contact information and locations, to name a few.).
Use Controls if Needed
For those of you who have children at home, you may want to consider implementing some parental controls. Doing so doesn't mean you don't trust your kids but rather that you understand and respect they pose a greater risk to their safety and that of your home because of inexperience.
They are more likely to communicate with someone online they don't know, share information they shouldn't share, or click on a link they should have ignored.
Parental controls can help minimize the damage your kids can do online, and because they also allow you to block inappropriate content, they are a good way for you to ensure your kids are using the internet for the right reasons.
Step 3: Secure Yourself
Perhaps the biggest threat we all face online is ourselves. The majority of cybercrimes and scams come about because of user error, such as clicking on a wrong link or believing a bogus message sent to you asking for money.
This means that no matter how many layers of defense you put up, hackers can still break into your internet home if you give them the keys or leave the front door wide open.
This much responsibility might seem like a lot at first. But once you get to step inside the mind of a hacker, you can learn to spot them from a mile away and close the final gap in the defense of your internet home.
Here are some of the things you should be doing to learn vigilance and stay away from the bad people of the internet:
Get Familiar With Spoofing
Spoofing, although a funny word, is no laughing matter. It's the act of making a fake website look so much like the original that users can't tell the difference between the two.
Cybercriminals create spoofed websites and spoofed emails to fool you into thinking their tricks are legit. If you've never seen a spoofed website before, check out these examples:
As you can see, a well-spoofed website can fool even the most careful eye.
It's unlikely you'll be able to spot a spoofed website or email right off the bat. If you can, it probably wasn't done very well in the first place. However, just because they're difficult to spot doesn't mean they're invisible, and knowing where to look when you're suspicious about an email is the first step towards keeping you safe online.
Some signs to look out for that tell you an email or website is spoofed include:
- Misspelled or slightly different URLs and email addresses. For example, a link you click on may take you to a website that looks exactly like PayPal but that is actually paypl.com. Or you may have received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org instead of email@example.com. At first glance, it's easy to overlook these minor differences, but they will be there. Catching them can be the difference between falling for one of these tricks and laughing about that time someone sent you a link that looked exactly like Amazon.
- Random messages. If you all of a sudden receive an email from Netflix saying your account has been canceled and you must act now to restore it, this should give you pause. Think: what incentive does Netflix have to all of a sudden delete your account? Wouldn't they have sent you a message earlier if there was something truly wrong? Do some investigating, and if you're really not sure, reach out to the company's support team. Don't just click on the link and enter your credit card information. Ask questions, then click. Not the other way around.
- Other cases. In
the event there is someone out there spoofing a major company's website or
email address, it's likely to have made it to the news. Try your best to keep
up with what's going on in the world around you. If there is a major issue, you
may find out about it before it affects you, which would make it much easier
for you to spot an attack should one come your way.
Know the Scams
Email phishing is a huge source of cybercrime. Hackers, or other scam artists, attempt to trick you into willingly handing over sensitive digital information, such as a password, credit card number, social security number, or all three and more.
Phishing comes in all different shapes and sizes, but nearly all examples have something in common. Here are some of these commonalities that will help you spot bad emails:
- Spoofed website or email addresses. Always double-check the URL and sender address before clicking a link.
- An extreme sense of urgency. "Your account is about to be closed." "Your subscription is about to be canceled." Messages such as these will usually come accompanied by a link where you can enter the information the hackers are after and "save your account." Inspect the email and the website, and consider reaching out to customer service to see if they know anything about this random and immediate cancellation threat.website or email addresses.
- Requests for help. These could be from complete strangers or someone posing as a person in your contacts. (They will probably be writing from a different email address but using the same name, so check that out.) If you do get an email from someone you know, try to get in contact with them before immediately wiring them money over the internet. Seems logical, no?
- Offers of free stuff. Everyone loves free stuff, and it's not uncommon for hackers to prey on this to steal from you. Typically, to get this "free stuff," you will need to give up some sort of information about yourself. Don't do this.
- Things that are too good to be true. Unclaimed lottery winnings, recently discovered inheritances, Nigerian princes in trouble, foreign oligarchs unable to move funds asking you to help them in exchange for a big payday. All sounds pretty good, no? Almost too good? Most online scams, in an attempt to get you to buy in, will make outlandish offers that should make you think twice. Act on that instinct and double-check the source of the offer before proceeding.
Fortunately, most of these messages will be caught by your email's spam filter. But some will make it through. They always do. Or you may go into your spam folder to retrieve something that ended up there by mistake and get drawn in by an enticing offer to claim a free trip to the Bahamas.
This is why it's so important to be vigilant. If you're always on the lookout and air on the side of caution, you should be able to spot something that's not quite right before it wreaks havoc on your entire life.
Be Careful What You Share
It's important to be attentive to how people can get to you but to be as secure as possible, you need to also be conscious of what you give out. We've already mentioned adjusting your privacy settings to make them as private as possible, but you'll also want to get better at keeping your social media life as tame as possible.
Some photos and a few comments here and there are all good fun but stay away from excessively sharing your location or any contact information.
Then, when not on social media, approach every request for your information with caution. Why does this blog need to know my address for me to access content? You might be dying to read the article, but think twice before handing over anything sensitive.
Again, if you follow the rule of being slightly more suspicious than not, you will likely be able to spot weird stuff before it gets to you so that you can easily steer clear.
What to Do if You're Hacked
Hopefully, if you've taken all the steps outlined here you won't ever get hacked. But unfortunately, it can still happen. And if it does, the first thing you should do is not panic. The security system you've got in place means the damage shouldn't be too bad.
Then, once you've calmed down, do the following:
However, we hope you will never need to follow any of these steps. And if you follow the steps we've outlined here and spend some time learning how to stay safe online, you can turn your internet home into a digital fortress where you and your loved ones can enjoy all the internet has to offer with genuine peace of mind.
What could be better than that?