Laptop Baby

It's wise to be skeptical about the ability of businesses and governments to protect your privacy and your money online.

From Sony to the U.S. Senate, Citi to the CIA, dozens of organizations have been attacked recently, with intruders often making away with personal information long before the break-ins were discovered.

So what's the solution if even the world's largest organizations can't stop the crooks? The only way to make the Internet safer is to do it yourself.

It's not that businesses are inured to break-ins and don't care about the consequences. The truth is that they simply can't keep up with the criminals on their own.

"There are about 1.5 billion attacks a month now," said Vincent Steckler, CEO of the Czech anti-virus firm Avast.

"We collect about 3 petabytes of data a month" about criminal activity, Steckler added. (One petabyte is equal to 1,000 terabytes, or 1 million gigabytes.)

It's simply too much information for companies to process, so we shouldn't rely on others to protect us.

Fortunately, there are some common-sense changes you can make on your own. In the digital world, just as in the physical world, we have to lock our doors and install security systems to deter burglars.

Here are nine ways you can make the Web safer for yourself, and possibly others.

Install a free anti-virus program.

Macs and PCs are vulnerable to daily threats. Even if you don't open an email and never download a file or program, just visiting a website can put you in peril.

According to researchers, 85 percent of infections are from websites, often legitimate sites that have been unknowingly infected themselves.

The only way to fight back is to use an anti-virus program such as Avast Free Antivirus, BitDefender Free Edition or Microsoft Security Essentials. They're all free, so there's no excuse not to do it.

Avoid "free" wireless networks.

That gratis Wi-Fi network in the local brewpub is probably a den of digital iniquity. Such networks usually aren't secured or encrypted, allowing strangers to track your online movements, record your passwords and make off with your credit-card information before you realize what's happened. Stay off them and use your own wireless subscription or service.

Use secure Web connections.

The "HTTPS" acronym at the beginning of many Web addresses denotes a site that is using encryption (the "S" stands for secure).

Many websites have this option, but most of us don't know or don't bother to use it. You have to purposely set it in many Web-based email programs, for example. It can occasionally cause other programs to hiccup (Windows Live on HTTPS can conflict with Outlook Hotmail Connector, for example), but the inconvenience is worth it.

To handle these settings automatically, try using the HTTPS Everywhere plug-in for Firefox. It will even connect you to more secure versions of Facebook and Twitter.

Don't be too social.

Want to share your latest vacation pics on Facebook? Great just wait until you get back from your trip.

I currently have three Facebook friends whom I know are away from home. That probably means other "friends" know, too, and not all of them may be nice. If you don't want thieves to know when you're away , use more caution about when and what you post.

Shop safely online.

The convenience of letting a shopping site, especially one you visit frequently, save all your personal information and credit-card numbers is tempting but don't do it.

There is no such thing as a website that's impervious to hackers. Assume your data will be stolen from a business at some point , so keep it to yourself.

Change your passwords, a lot.

Since you cannot count on every site or business out there protecting your data or even telling you when it's been stolen one of the best protections is also the simplest.

Changing your password frequently can keep you one step ahead of the thieves. If your bank password has been stolen and is up for sale online, changing it will take away the criminal's keys to your account.

And while it might be OK to use the same password on sites that don't hold any of your personal or financial information, always use unique and strong passwords for online banking, social networking or webmail sites.

Would you, could you on a train? Don't.

Sitting in the commuter car or in any public place makes you vulnerable to "shoulder surfers," people who scan other people's laptop or smartphone screens looking for passwords or other personal information.

Many of these crooked cruisers don't even turn their heads; they just take a picture with their cellphones as they go by.

So consider where you're sitting and what you're doing. Can't you wait until you get home to pay that bill online?

Avoid app attacks.

Don't be the first kid to jump into the pool. In other words, when you discover a new app for your smartphone, tablet or browser, check it out before you tap "install."

Look carefully at the permissions it asks for. Better still, see how often it's been downloaded (the higher the number of times, the less likely it's malware) and read the reviews.

Smartphones are becoming the target of choice for many cybercriminals, exploits have already been discovered for browser apps and tablets won't be far behind.

Let the Tor be with you.

For the truly paranoid, or for people who have reason to believe they are being tracked online, there's Tor. It's a free program that attempts to keep your online anonymity intact by bouncing your Web communications around a number of servers on the Internet to prevent someone from following you.

Whistleblowers and political activists use Tor religiously, and if you don't want companies, authorities or divorce lawyers to see what you're doing online, so should you.

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