5 Mistakes to Stop Making Today

Logging on to your computer can be a dangerous venture: Hackers! Malware! Never-ending spam! Some common habits make you vulnerable to the worst elements of the Internet. Stop making these five tech mistakes today, and you’ll be instantly safer online.

  1. Neglecting to install Operating System updates on your computers AND mobile devices.

Hackers and writers of malicious code spend their days ferreting out weaknesses in commonly used software – vulnerabilities in the code that can be exploited to spread malware, siphon data, or hijack your machine. When developers at Microsoft, Apple, Google and the like discover an exploitable weakness in one of their programs, they send out a patch.

People avoid installing Operating System updates for many reasons: They take forever to install, and you have work to do. You’re worried it will cause something to stop working, make your system slower, or change things you’ve grown accustomed to. You’re suspicious about pop ups that appear unexpectedly on your screen.

But the longer you wait to install critical updates, the more vulnerable you are to cyber criminals. Set your computer to automatically download and install updates late at night, when it won’t interrupt your work schedule. Install updates on your mobile devices when you’re watching TV or at bedtime. While Operating System updates may occasionally cause apps to malfunction, it’s usually just a matter of days until the app developer pushes out their own patch. Install app updates regularly in the days following an OS patch. Good news: updated code can make your computer or mobile device use resources more efficiently, so you could experience improved performance after an update.

  1. Installing software or apps from untrustworthy sources.

Infected software is one of the most common malware delivery tools used by cyber criminals to get access to your computer or mobile device’s resources and data. The easiest way to avoid infection is to vigilantly avoid installing software from untrustworthy sources. Never install a program you’ve linked to through a pop up or banner ad, from a link you get in an email or see on Facebook, or through a 3rd party app site.

Investigate a program or application before you install it. Look for reviews from tech professionals on sites like CNet or PCMag.com. Positive reviews tell you that the program is legitimate and not just a Trojan Horse for malware. These sites also offer links to reputable download sites so that you can be sure you won’t install a rogue version of an otherwise legitimate application.

For mobile device apps, only download from the app store affiliated with your device, such as the iTunes App Store, Google Play, or the Kindle App Store. Late last year, a malware infection spread through iPhones in China after infected versions of legitimate apps like Angry Birds and Bejeweled 3 were posted to a 3rd party app download site called Maiyadi. Dramatically reduce your chance of infection by downloading software only from trusted sources.

  1. Forgetting to maintain up-to-date malware protection on your computers and mobile devices.

You know the drill, here. If you haven’t messed with the anti-malware protection on your computer since you bought it last year, go install a free anti-virus software program and configure it to automatically scan and install updates. AVG (www.avg.com) offers a great line of free malware protection programs for computers and mobile devices, and Microsoft Security Essentials (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/security-essentials-download), gives Windows users a seamlessly integrated program that runs with little required user interaction.

  1. Giving the same email address to friends, colleagues and miscellaneous websites.

Every website you visit wants your email address, and it only takes one site selling your address for your inbox to be inundated with spam. Once your address is out there, its impossible to reclaim it. Sure, you can set up inbox filtering and auto-delete rules to help stem the tide, but eventually your inbox will be overrun with junk.

The best recourse is to have several email accounts: one dedicated to your online shopping and account creation, one for friends and family, one for work, and one for important things like banking. If you already have an address that is overrun with spam, convert it to your “miscellaneous online activity” account. Set up a new, unique email address and give it only to friends and family. Reserve your work email for communication with clients, colleagues or vendors – never, never provide it online for notices, shopping, or newsletters.

When visiting a website you won’t likely return to regularly, or one that seems particularly sketchy, consider using a disposable address from Malinator (https://mailinator.com/). Pick any address you want with the ending @malinator.com, and an inbox is created when the address receives mail. If you need to retrieve messages sent to the address, just go to the Malinator site and type in the address. All accounts are public, so don’t use a Malinator address in conjunction with any personal information.

  1. Using the same username and password combination across the web.

Hackers commonly attack sites with relatively weak security, gather the usernames and passwords stored in their databases, and then try those combinations across other sites with stricter security. Lists of username and password combinations circulate among the hacker community, so even the best, most difficult to guess password won’t help if you use the same one everywhere.

I know what you’re thinking: it would be impossible to remember a unique username and password combination for the 1,234 websites with which you have “accounts.” Au contraire. Utilize a password management program like LastPass (https://lastpass.com/) to create and store passwords for you, or incorporate a pass-phrase rule. My favorite password trick is detailed here: http://callnerds.com/make-awesomely-secure-passwords-easily/.

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