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Cybersecurity 101: Essential Practices for Online Safety

Cybersecurity 101: The Essentials for Staying Safe Online With cyber threats becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, it's more important than ever for all of us […]

Cybersecurity 101: The Essentials for Staying Safe Online

With cyber threats becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, it's more important than ever for all of us to practice good cyber hygiene. This Cybersecurity Awareness Month, let's go over some foundational cybersecurity 101 practices that everyone should know to stay protected online.

Cybersecurity 101: Essential Practices for Online Safety

Cybersecurity 101: Essential Practices for Online Safety

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Use Strong Passwords and Enable Multi-Factor Authentication

Using weak, reused passwords makes it trivial for cybercriminals to gain access to your online accounts through brute force attacks or credential stuffing. Follow these best practices for creating strong passwords:

  • Make your passwords long and complex. The recommended length is 12-14 characters or longer. Mix upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols to make passwords harder to crack.
  • Avoid using personal information, dictionary words, or common strings like "Password123" that are easy to guess.
  • Consider using a password manager app to generate and store unique, random passwords for all your accounts. Top password managers like LastPass, 1Password, and Dashlane make password security effortless.
  • Never reuse passwords across multiple accounts. Cybercriminals who steal credentials from one account will try them on other popular sites, enabling account takeovers through credential stuffing. Use a unique password for every account.
  • Turn on multi-factor authentication (MFA) everywhere it's offered. MFA requires you to verify your identity with a second step, like entering a one-time code sent to your smartphone or from an authenticator app. MFA adds a critical additional layer of protection beyond just a password.

Enabling MFA is one of the most important steps you can take to lock down your online accounts. Even if your password is compromised, cybercriminals won't be able to access your accounts with MFA enabled. Major online services like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft all offer MFA - be sure to turn it on.

Keep Software Updated to Avoid Exploits

Cybercriminals are constantly finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in popular software products and operating systems. When vendors become aware of vulnerabilities, they issue software updates and security patches. By keeping your software up-to-date across all your devices, you make it much harder for cybercriminals to hack you.

Here are some tips for staying current with software updates:

  • Enable automatic updates for your operating systems, including Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and ChromeOS. Operating system updates frequently include critical security patches.
  • Don't ignore notifications when apps or browser extensions prompt you to install updates. These updates patch vulnerabilities and improve security. Keep apps fully updated.
  • Check periodically for updates to products that don't auto-update, like Adobe Reader and Java. You can configure many products to auto-check for new updates.
  • Remove old, unsupported software that no longer receives updates. Unsupported products like Windows 7 leave you exposed.
  • Update firmware on routers, smart home devices, and IoT devices. Firmware updates often address security flaws.

Staying diligent about software updates can feel tedious, but it's one of the most effective ways to keep cybercriminals locked out. Enable auto-updates whenever possible so your devices stay up-to-date effortlessly.

Use Caution with Links and Attachments to Avoid Malware

Email continues to be the #1 delivery method for malware and cyberattacks. Cybercriminals rely heavily on phishing emails containing malicious links and attachments to infect computers, steal login credentials, and siphon sensitive data.

Practice caution when handling unsolicited emails:

  • Don't click on links or open attachments in emails from unfamiliar senders. First verify that the email actually came from the person or company claimed.
  • Check the full email address of the sender. Scammers often spoof legitimate business names and addresses. An email from "Microsoft" could really be coming from a sketchy address.
  • Hover your mouse over any links to preview the actual destination URL before clicking. Make sure the links lead where expected, not to sketchy sites.
  • Be wary of emails conveying urgency or demanding immediate action, which is a common phishing tactic. Real companies generally won't threaten consequences for not clicking a link.
  • If an email looks at all suspicious or "phishy," just delete it. Don't open it.

You should also be cautious when downloading files and programs from the web:

  • Only download software from official sources like app stores and vendors' websites. Avoid peer-to-peer file sharing sites.
  • Use caution even with official sites. Verify the authenticity of download buttons and links - scammers sometimes hijack legitimate sites.
  • Scan any downloaded files with up-to-date antivirus software before opening them. This detects malware.
  • Use the "Save As" function when downloading files from websites. Avoid clicking directly on links to open files, which may launch malware.

A little prudence goes a long way in avoiding malware from unvetted links and attachments. If something seems suspicious, just delete it.

Secure Your Accounts Against Unauthorized Access

Your online accounts contain a wealth of sensitive personal data like bank details, tax records, medical information, and more. Fortifying your online accounts helps protect this data from compromise.

Here are tips to lock down account security:

  • Avoid account credential reuse across different sites and services. If credentials from one account are compromised, your other accounts stay secure.
  • Set up account recovery and rescue options in case you ever get locked out:
    • Add alternate email addresses and phone numbers for password reset links.
    • Provide answers to security questions that only you know.
    • Save backup codes provided by services like Google and Apple.
    • Set up trusted contacts to help with account recovery.
  • Use login notifications to monitor account access in real time. If you get alerts about logins from unknown locations, change your password immediately.
  • Review connected apps and services with account permissions. Remove anything unfamiliar or unnecessary to limit access.
  • Enable any available two-factor or multi-factor authentication for extra security.
  • Check your account settings periodically for any unauthorized changes made by intruders.

With strong credentials and enhanced account security controls, you make it much harder for criminals to break into your online accounts and services.

Browse the Web Securely to Avoid Infections

Practicing general safe web browsing and computing habits is essential to avoid malware infections from malicious sites:

  • Make sure all devices have modern antivirus software and firewalls installed and enabled. This basic security software provides real-time protection against viruses, malware, ransomware, and other threats.
  • Only download apps and programs from official trusted sources like app stores. Avoid sideloading from unverified sites and publishers.
  • Check that websites use HTTPS encryption before entering any login credentials or sensitive information. Look for the lock icon in the URL bar. HTTP sites transmit data in plain insecure text.
  • Never enter sensitive information or login to accounts over public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi networks are easy for cybercriminals to monitor and intercept.
  • Don't click web ads or pop-ups, as they commonly spread malware. Use an ad blocker extension if annoying ads are proliferate.
  • Be wary of free online streaming sites, as they often distribute malware infections to users. Stick to reputable paid streaming services like Netflix and Disney+.
  • Don't open email attachments or download files from unfamiliar senders or sites. First scan them with antivirus software just to be safe.

The threats online are real, but with proper precautions your risk of infection remains low. Security software, safe browsing habits, and common sense go a long way in keeping malware at bay.

Additional Ways to Strengthen Your Cybersecurity Posture

Beyond these cybersecurity fundamentals, there are a few additional steps individuals and businesses can take to further enhance protection:

  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) when accessing public Wi-Fi or unfamiliar networks. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic to keep it secure and anonymous.
  • Enable firewalls on home Wi-Fi routers and gateways to monitor and filter incoming and outgoing traffic. Don't use default passwords.
  • Frequently back up your data both locally and to a secure cloud service. Backups protect against ransomware and data loss. Store backups offline.
  • Learn to identify social engineering attacks like phishing attempts through security awareness education. Avoid falling victim.
  • Monitor your credit reports and financial accounts regularly for any suspicious activity indicating identity theft. Place fraud alerts and freezes if necessary.
  • Disable features and services on devices and in apps that collect excessive personal data and location tracking. Limit sharing of personal information when possible.
  • Properly dispose of old hardware that stored sensitive files by performing factory resets or physically destroying the device.
  • Use security tools like password managers and secure browsers for enhanced protection.

For businesses, additional cybersecurity best practices like firewalls, endpoint detection and response (EDR), security awareness training, vulnerability management programs, and email security platforms are critical to implement.

Staying secure online does require more vigilance these days with cybercrime on the rise. But following cybersecurity best practices like strong passwords, software updates, safe browsing, and multi-factor authentication goes a long way. Don't let the threats deter you from living your connected life. A little caution is all it takes to use technology safely.


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