Heading Back to School? Don’t Forget About Your PC Security Basics!

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You’re hanging out in a campus coffee shop, surfing the Internet on a public WiFi network. You’re paying bills, reading email, and posting some funny photos taken in your dorm room last night.

And with each of those activities, you’re a potential target for cybercriminals, viruses, spyware, and other threats.

Today’s students are used to being on the Internet constantly. But as one student told TV station KVUE: “I don’t think our generation thinks much about (security) because we’re online so much.”

For students of any age, here are five of the most common PC security threats you could face—and what you can do about them.

1. Laptop, Tablet, and Smartphone Theft
The typical student today owns a variety of expensive mobile devices coveted by thieves. If your laptop, tablet, or smartphone is stolen, however, you’ve not simply lost a device you rely upon. You could also be the target of identity thieves if, like most people, you’ve stored personal information on your mobile device.

To minimize the risks, students should:

• Install device-tracking software
There are a number of software solutions to remotely track the location of your stolen laptop, tablet, or smartphone on a map, lock it down, and wipe its data storage disk clean. Some software lets you remotely recover important files from your laptop as well. Lookout is a popular solution for keeping track of your mobile devices, while ZoneAlarm Extreme Security includes a Find My Laptop feature, which does exactly as it sounds.

• Never leave devices unattended or within easy reach of others
Not long ago, two students in a downtown San Francisco coffee shop were having a lively discussion. One had left her iPad on the table, to her right and out of her eyesight. A thief grabbed the iPad and was halfway across the street before the students realized what happened.

• Invest in a cable lock
Kensington is among the companies that make cable locks to physically secure laptops and tablets to a fixed location, such as a dorm room desk.

• Passcode-protect devices
While savvy thieves can often crack user passcodes, doing so slows them down. And anything you can do to slow a thief down is worth the effort.

2. Malware
Malware, such as computer viruses, is a significant threat to students and all computer users. A virus can corrupt or completely erase your computer’s data and can hijack your email program to spread itself to other computers. Imagine losing all the assignments and projects you’ve spent countless nights working on because of a malware infection that could have easily been prevented.

Malware can infect your computer through email attachments, websites, USB drives, and the like. Increasingly, mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS are being targeted with malware, too.

To protect yourself, install security software on your computer that, at a minimum, includes antivirus and a two-way firewall. If possible, get a security suite that also includes anti-spyware; anti-keylogging; anti-phishing; and anti-spam. Security suites that also have the capability of analyzing email attachments in a virtual sandbox for unknown malware can mean the difference between a completed assignment and one that you likely have to start all over.

3. Phishing and ‘Vishing’ Scams
In a typical phishing attack, you’d receive what looks like a legitimate email from a business, such as your bank. The email contains a link that, when clicked, takes you to a ‘spoofed’ site. The spoofed site may also look legitimate but is, in reality, a fake site designed to capture your passwords, credit card details, bank account logins or other sensitive data.

Your best defense is to learn how to differentiate a phishing scam from a legitimate email. For tips, see 7 Ways to Spot a Phishing Scam.

Phishing scams aren’t limited to email. In ‘voice phishing’ scams (also called ‘vishing’), a criminal attempts to trick victims into providing personal or financial information over the phone. The criminal may have spoofed legitimate caller ID numbers in order to hide his true identity—something that’s relatively easy to do using Voice over IP technology.

Never give any personal information, such as a Social Security number, to a caller unless you’re positive he or she is a legitimate representative of a company with which you regularly do business. If there’s any question, ask for the caller’s full name, title and department and tell him or her you’ll call back. Use the business’s phone number as posted on its website or on any mailed statement or correspondence you’ve received from the company.

4. Unsecured Public WiFi
Unsecured public WiFi networks, such as those offered by coffee shops near campus, can put you at risk. Nearby criminals may be able to see everything you type—including your bank account login information. To protect yourself, use virtual private network (VPN) software connections when on an unsecured public WiFi network. SurfEasy VPN offers a free version for Windows, Macs, iOS and Android devices.

5. Social Media
Many students enjoy sharing activities and personal information on social media sites such as Facebook. However, putting your birth date, where you live, vacation updates, and other information online, as well as accepting friend requests from people you don’t know, can make an identity thief’s job a lot easier. So always be careful about what you share, and with whom.

Also, many smartphone cameras today include GPS coordinates in the metadata for each picture. This information, contained within publicly posted photos, could reveal your location. For an illustration of this, see I Know Where Your Cat Lives.

Get Smart
Ultimately, students and all computer users should ‘school’ themselves in the risks of going online. The more you know, the better you can outsmart security threats.

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