VeraSafe’s Privacy, Web Security and Safe Shopping Guide (Part I)

1. Website Privacy Awareness

Information Sharing

You are responsible for deciding whom you share your personal information with and you should make these decisions carefully. When you share information online, particularly in social media, such information can become public. It may sound obvious, but if you don’t want others to know your personal information, consider not entering this type of information into web forms or social media profiles.

Opt-Out Rights

US law does not set particularly strict limits on how companies can share your personal information. Some companies’ privacy policies may state that they will sell your personal information to unrelated third parties for their marketing purposes. When you give your personal information to websites offering prizes, sweepstakes or magazine subscriptions, online dating websites and even credit card companies, they are likely to sell your information to other companies unless you ask them not to. Getting into the habit of reading privacy policies and exercising your opt-out rights can significantly limit how widely your personal information is spread.

Check for Privacy Policies and Take Time to Read Them

While several US states have enacted laws that require commercial websites to post accurate privacy policies, most states do not currently have such laws. While all websites that collect personal information should post a privacy policy, many don’t. Always check to make sure websites you share your personal information with have a readily accessible privacy policy. If they don’t, there are few limits to how that company can use your information: consider shopping elsewhere.

Be particularly wary of websites that have a ‘Privacy Policy’ link in their website footer, but don’t actually have a privacy policy available. The link may be broken or may be a dummy link that points to an unrelated webpage. Unscrupulous companies use this trick knowing that some customers will be put at ease when they see a ‘Privacy Policy’ link in the website footer, but won’t actually take the time to visit the Privacy Policy page. This is highly deceptive and if you see this trick in action, do not share your personal information with that website.

2. Your Web Browser Privacy Settings

Browser Updates

Modern web browsers contain sophisticated technology and controls to help protect your privacy and keep you safe online, however older web browsers may not have such features and also may contain dangerous vulnerabilities that leave your sensitive information, such as credit card details, exposed to hackers. Enable automatic updates in your web browser to ensure you’re always using the latest version of the software.

If you use Internet Explorer® 6 or an earlier version, you must immediately upgrade to a more recent version. Older versions of Internet Explorer contain major vulnerabilities that leave your browser sessions accessible to hackers. PCWorld MagazineTM labeled Internet Explorer 6 as the “least secure software on the planet.”

Malware Warnings

Browsers such as Google® ChromeTM will display a prominent warning if you attempt to access a website that is known to contain malware. Don’t attempt to bypass these warnings as they are a sign of trouble ahead.

Browser Privacy Controls

Cookies are small files that are automatically downloaded to your computer when you access a website. The cookie download typically occurs without notifying you. Modern browsers and browser plugins contain features that allow you to see and even reject web cookies. The cookie file contains certain information about you and your computer and might contain your personal information. You can set your web browser to reject all cookies, however this could impact the usability of trustworthy websites. A better option might be to configure your web browser to warn you every time a website wants to place a cookie on your computer—you can then accept or reject the cookie based on how familiar you are with the website and its security and privacy practices.

Most modern browsers offer a “private browsing” feature that helps prevent your browsing history, temporary Internet files, form data, cookies, and user names and passwords from being retained on your computer. Mozilla® Firefox® offers Private Browsing, Google Chrome offers Incognito Mode, and Microsoft® Internet Explorer provides InPrivate browsing. Firefox also provides a prominent “Forget” button that lets you instruct the browser to forget your last five minutes, two hours, or 24 hours of browsing while saving the rest of your history and cookies from before that time.

3. Computer Software Tips

Malware/Badware

Malware is a generic term for various types of malicious software, including viruses, worms and trojans. Badware is a similar concept, but also includes software that was designed with good intentions, but contains unsafe features or serious vulnerabilities. Badware can compromise your privacy and security by allowing hackers to steal your personal information, degrade the performance of your computer, cause data loss, etc.

To help keep these types of dangerous software off your computer, follow these best practice tips:

A. Use trusted antivirus software and keep it updated. New malware threats are found every day. The newest threats are often the most insidious. Outdated antivirus software provides only a limited benefit.  Use antivirus software that has an auto-update feature and keep this feature enabled.

B. Use a modern operating system (OS), enable automatic OS updates and ensure that all updates and patches are regularly applied. Microsoft Windows® XP does not count as a modern OS.

C. Only download software from trusted sources. Knowingly installing software from unfamiliar vendors can lead to malware infections on your computer. Illegal file-sharing systems offer little or no protection from such hazards and are rife with malware-infected software.