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Staying Safe Online: The Essentials


Earlier this year, we brought you Outsmarting the Scammers; The Ultimate Guide for International Students, in response to the frequent targeting and vulnerability of international students to scams.

These issues extend online as well.

Some online swindles are based on social engineering, and as such, cultural differences between home and host country puts some students at risk. Additionally, international students from areas where internet access isn’t as widely available, may not be familiar with online safety measures.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a paranoid, tech-genius in order to practice the fundamental of online security.

Here are the basic steps all international students should take to stay safe on the internet.

Firstly it’s really important to keep all your software up to date. Hackers often target flaws in out-of-date software. In particular, you need to keep updated things like; operating systems, internet browsers, plugins (Adobe Flash, Java) and anti-viral software. If you can, turn on automatic updates so that you’ll always have the most up to date and protected software.

You should also at least have a basic anti-viral software installed on your computer.  Check out these reviews of the latest and best anti-viral software for PC or for Mac. There’s plenty of free and paid options out there for you to choose from.

Possibly the most important thing (but something that people are often not vigilant about) is having strong passwords.  In the 21st century, your password can no longer be ‘password’, or your dog’s name.  Some of the worst and most common passwords are, in fact:

  • 23456
  • password
  • 12345678
  • qwerty
  • 12345

You can see how having an easily guessed password is a dream come true for someone with ill-intentions. No matter what language you use, stay away from sequential numbers and common words and phrases. You should also steer clear of personal facts – you might think that your mother’s name before she married is hard to guess, but that kind of information can often be found on public records and is exactly the kind of thing people looking to hack an account will look for.

To design effective, strong passwords, use these expert tips from Edward Snowden (he would know).  You should also:

  • Set up SMS alerts for passwords.
  • Don’t re-use the same password everywhere. If someone steals your password once, then they’ll be thrilled to discover that they now have access to several or all of your accounts.
  • If you find it hard to keep track of different password, get a password manager app.

If you’re a student, you’re probably a fan of Wi-Fi.  Yes, Wi-Fi is great, especially when it’s free, but there are two important rules; (1) avoid accessing emails and (2) avoid paying via credit card while on public Wi-Fi.

Speaking of paying for things, peer-to-peer networks are one of the most likely places to run into trouble online. You may have been using one for years and had no problems, but it only takes one bad file to corrupt your system. Avoid pirated files and software whenever you can.

It’s also important to take measures to secure your email accounts. There’s actually quite a few things you can do:

  • Don’t open attachments unless you know exactly who it is from.
  • Always log out of your email, especially if you’re on a shared computer.
  • Never check your email on an unsafe network e.g. public Wi-Fi.
  • Have a distinct email login name and password that are never used anywhere else.  Change it regularly.
  • Consider getting a paid account with strong security features.
  • Consider setting up a separate, dedicated account just for ‘spam’.  Anytime you want to enter a competition, sign up for a discount newsletter or make a one-off purchase at an online store, use your spam account.  As well as keeping your inbox free of clutter, you won’t risk anything important being hacked into if your ‘spam’ address is compromised.

Our email accounts are also an avenue through which you might be targeted by scams or social engineering.  Social engineering is when people try to manipulate others into giving away personal details, account details or money online.  These scams often try to tap into basic human-nature or exploit a weakness of a particular group of people. Although social engineering can happen in all kinds of online spaces, it most often happens via email, on forums or on social media. The golden rules to avoiding social engineering are:

  • If something seems to good to be true – it probably is.
  • Be wary of any emails asking you to update login or account details.
  • Be extremely wary of anything that asks you to send money, especially anything claiming to be a charity or even a friend stuck overseas.
  • If you’re uncertain about the trustworthiness of any request, most companies will have guidelines available as to what they do and do not ask people for via email or online.   You can read those, or if you’re still uncertain, get off-line and try to verify it.  Give the company a call and ask them if they have actually sent you the correspondence themselves.

Finally, it’s important not to get lax with your social media accounts.  It goes without saying that we all want to be social on social media. But, we also have to make very clear decisions about what we’re comfortable and uncomfortable sharing with others on these sites.  Take stock of all your accounts and imagine you’re someone snooping for sensitive information. What could they find out about you?  Make sure your email, home address, work address and phone number are not visible to the public.

When it comes to interacting with others, it’s best not to conduct any business (exchanging money, finding accommodation) purely through social media.  While many businesses have official page on social media, remember that just because someone has a business page, does not mean that they are legitimate.