Leaving Mom and Dad's house to attend college is the beginning of a journey to establish your own identity. Relationships are formed and broken, your fashion sense develops a certain "individuality" and your independent streak shines through. But the sense of self you've worked so hard to create is vulnerable to impersonation, courtesy of identity thieves and their seemingly endless campaign to target disorganized internet users.
Typically, identity theft can range from the breach of an online bank account to hacking users' emails--and the repercussions are felt both financially and emotionally. Of course, internet security is important for all of us, but as a student (and especially if you're studying for a distance learning degree), protecting your academic files, your finances AND your emotions from web predators should be a priority. After all, enrolling in a degree can be a soul-searching period, and finding your bank account robbed of precious beer money is unlikely to help your potentially delicate emotional state.
Luckily, to avoid an identity theft nightmare, there are some simple steps you can take to keep your personal data secure when using the web.
Safeguard your computer from the inside out
Hook up your laptop or PC to the internet and it immediately becomes vulnerable to malware, Trojans, spyware and viruses. But unlike catching a bug from a fellow student, your computer is susceptible to infections that can send your information on to an unscrupulous third party looking to use it. Trojans have the potential to collect your passwords and, when you shop online, scoop up your credit card details.
To avoid this, it's crucial you install reputable antivirus software to scan emails and files to detect viruses. Ensure the scan runs every couple of days, because there's always another virus waiting in the wings, ready to attack. Also, keep your firewall turned on and the operating system up to date, because some malware can dig a virtual tunnel through the weakness of certain operating systems.
Think before you share
Contrary to popular belief, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery--especially where identity theft is involved. Consequently, be aware of the information you share through Facebook or Twitter, as hackers can jump on it and use these details to gain access to personal data and login information.
With this in mind, make sure you create strong passwords for any online account--and make sure you change them regularly. Passwords with 8-10 characters and a combination of letters, numbers and symbols are more secure--but don't use the same password for several sites.
Look for the padlock
If you're logging in to a website where you need to enter sensitive information, it's vital that the site is encrypted (not according to this recent article, though...) to keep your details secure. Simply check to ensure the URL begins with "HTTPS" and contains the little padlock symbol somewhere in the browser. Want to check if the site is legit? Click on the padlock to view its credentials. When you're done, make sure that you have logged out properly and the window has been closed.
Be aware of your surroundings
Whether you're in the university library or at an internet café, it's important to look around you and think about what a potential criminal can see if he or she were to look over your shoulder. That's not to say you have to live in fear of being watched, but it pays to be vigilant.If you're using a shared computer, once you're finished, be careful not to leave any pages open that reveal sensitive information. Additionally, keep in mind that the public WiFi service you're using may not be secure, which is why it's best to avoid sending or receiving private information until you can guarantee the network is safe.
Robert Siciliano CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, personal security and identity theft expert and speaker is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Identity Was Stolen. See him knock'em dead in this identity theft prevention video. Disclosures.