5 Tips to Protect Your Identity Online

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In celebration of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, Internet privacy provider Anonymizer wants everyone to know we’re not as safe as we think are when we’re online.

The company’s research found that a majority of us believe using firewall software (75 percent) or antivirus software (62 percent) is enough protection against identity theft online. That’s unfortunately not the case.

Having both a firewall and an antivirus program will help protect your data from stuff coming in, so you should use both. (We have recommendations for free antivirus software.) They also help guard against ID theft, but they only address half the equation: the incoming side.

Those programs can’t do much about what you choose to send out through your computer, whether you do that by broadcasting information on a public network, instant messaging, sharing your files, or typing in your details on social networking sites, forums, or in e-mails.

There’s a lot of software out there you can pay for to protect some of these things. Anonymizer would have you pay $80 for a year of protection, and if you go visit their website right now, you’ll probably see your internet protocol (IP) address, city, and web browser listed – which might just scare you into buying.

But there are a lot of free solutions, too. While they’re not always simple to use, if they can save you money and help you keep your credit and privacy intact, they’re worth considering. We’ll start with the easiest ones first:

  1. Use common sense. Watch what you say and where you say it. Don’t post information you might not want certain people to see unless you know it’s safely encrypted or otherwise protected. The Federal Trade Commission has some more basic Internet safety tips.
  2. Update your software regularly. Because new viruses and security loopholes are always appearing, you need to keep updating. A friend of mine who works in an IT department likens this chore to brushing your teeth: If you don’t make it a habit, you might end up with problems, embarrassment, and a lot of pain. You don’t have to update three times a day, but weekly is good. Many programs can be set to update automatically, or at least to announce new versions. Use those settings and avoid both the hassle and the risk. Secunia provides a free tool that tells PC users what programs are out of date and helps you find the newest versions.
  3. Use protected Wi-Fi connections. When you use a wireless connection, your data – possibly including your passwords – is literally floating around in the air, and anyone who knows how can eavesdrop on your computer. While places like Starbucks and Panera offer free Wi-Fi, it’s on an unsafe public network. The easiest way to protect yourself is to connect only to secure networks: they usually have a lock symbol next to them, and may mention WPA or WEP encryption. These networks garble up the data you’re transmitting so it won’t make sense to anyone trying to steal it. You usually can’t get on these networks without a password, though, so you won’t have access unless you’re supposed to. For more on secure networks, including how to secure your home wireless connection, check out this PC World article.
  4. Make your instant messages instantly secure. This level of security isn’t practical for the average person, but if you’re concerned that someone’s snooping through your IMs, you can take a few steps. First, turn off any features that make logs of your conversations, then get your chat buddies to do the same. Second, look into software that encrypts your messages, like Off the Record. Privacy rights advocate The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), explains how to use OTR and other IM safety measures. If you’re a Mac user with the Adium client, it’s already built in. If you’re a PC user, you’re going to have to switch to a chat client like Pidgin, which connects to multiple popular IM networks including MSN, AIM, and Google.
  5. Hide your IP address. If you’ve ever seen an advertisement pop up with deals or offers specifically for where you live, it’s because that site can see your IP address, which is a unique string of numbers assigned to your computer each time you connect to the Internet. Hackers can also easily take advantage of a visible IP. How can you hide it? One solution endorsed by the EFF is The Onion Router, also known as Tor. You download the software (for either PC or Mac) and it works alongside Firefox and other programs to keep you hidden. There are a lot of ways your cover can slip, though, so read the instructions carefully. And there are downsides, too: The software can block things like YouTube videos from loading, for example. It’s up to you how safe you want to be – this is probably a little much for the average user.

It’s also worth pointing out that identity theft can happen regardless of how you use your computer. For ways to protect yourself offline, check out Top 10 Tips for Free Identity Theft Prevention.

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