Simple Ways to Avoid the Most Common Online Mistakes

By Jake Schroeder
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People today live in a hyper-connected world, thanks largely to social media and e-commerce. In their increasingly digital lives, people are sharing more and more personal information online without a second thought.

But with so much of our private data readily available online, how can you stay safe? By being mindful online and taking a few extra steps, you can prevent your personal information from ending up in the wrong hands. Read on to learn how to stay safe online.

Never Use the Same Password for Multiple Accounts

Most people are guilty of this mistake. Once they find a password that they like, they use it for everything. After all, it’s much easier to remember one password than it is to remember 50. However, it’s also incredibly insecure.

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Using the same password for every account makes it much easier for hackers to gain access to all of your information. They only need to determine a single password to gain access to your email, social media profiles, banking accounts and more. If you have trouble remembering more than one password at a time, consider using a password manager app.

Take Advantage of Privacy Settings

In addition to what you can do on your computer itself, there are also settings on social media providers like Facebook and Twitter that allow you to alter what content you see as well as what you let others view. Depending on the platform, pictures, old posts, contact information and more can be kept hidden from strangers — or everyone.

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While this in and of itself doesn’t add to cyber security, it does make it harder to impersonate you online and potentially breach your security questions. There are also third-party tools that you can use to restrict content to primarily your friends and family.

Watch Out for Hoaxes and False Information

You can’t believe everything you read. Online hoaxes are a widespread problem, and it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish fake news from real news. Fake stories thrive on social media where people regularly share things without reading or investigating them first.

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Before sharing the next shocking thing you read online, do a little research first and stop the spread of fake news in its tracks. Check the source and determine if it is trustworthy, and consider using a fact-checking site like Snopes, PolitiFact and TruthOrFiction..


Be Careful When Logging Onto Public Wi-Fi Networks

Everyone loves free Wi-Fi. Most people are on their phones constantly, and no one wants to waste data when they don’t have to. But guess who loves public Wi-Fi as much as you do? Hackers!

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Scammers set up fraudulent networks that track your activity and steal your personal information. If you are out and about and absolutely must use a business’ Wi-Fi, double-check to see which network is theirs — scammers like to create fake copies of networks. Also, never visit a website that contains banking information or other sensitive data if you are not on a secure, password-protected Wi-Fi network.

Refrain From Clicking on Unverified Links and Attachments

Scammers may send emails that appear to be from legitimate businesses or people you know to gain access to your usernames, passwords or other personal data. They may send a link to a page where you can type in your private information, or they may email you an attachment that contains a virus or malware. This type of scam is known as phishing.

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Before clicking on anything, be on the lookout fpr anything that looks unusual or sketchy. Check the sender's email address. Look for typos and poor grammar in the email body and the sender’s address.

Be Careful With What You Publish

Whatever you publish on the internet is often permanent. Whether it’s a comment or a blog post, it may be impossible to take back whatever you said. That’s why it’s important to be cautious about what you post online.

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You can do this by taking a few minutes before clicking the "post" button to ensure you feel confident about the quality and nature of the content you’re posting. Remember, even if you delete a post, it has a digital footprint and can easily be saved and copied by other online users.


Never Post Photos of Your Boarding Passes

Maybe you’re super psyched about your upcoming vacation. You just want all of your friends to know how excited you are. But while posting a photo of your boarding pass may seem innocuous, it can actually provide strangers with a slew of personal info that you do not want floating around the internet.

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A hacker could use your last name and the record locator number on your boarding pass to gain access to your frequent flyer account. They can locate your phone number and learn about any upcoming flights you’ve already booked.

Avoid Sharing Wi-Fi Access With Neighbors And Strangers

Everything you do online is identifiable by your IP address. This is directly connected to your router rather than an individual device like a laptop. That means that if someone does something illegal on your Wi-Fi, it can be traced back to you and your home.

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The last thing you want to have to deal with is the consequences of illegal online activity of a complete stranger or even a neighbor, which is why you should regularly change your WiFi password and avoid sharing login information. The only people you should trust with your at-home network is yourself and your family.

Don’t Take Personality Quizzes From Sources You Don’t Know

Sure, it’s fun to learn which Harry Potter character you are or which celebrity is your soulmate. But any time a website asks for your personal information, you should be wary. Sometimes, data mining companies build personality quizzes and post them on social media so they can collect your personal data and sell it to advertisers.

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More worryingly, hackers also sometimes make seemingly innocent online quizzes that encourage people to answer common password security questions. If a quiz asks you about the name of your first pet or where you met your spouse, close it immediately.


Regularly Update Your Antivirus Program

Although internet security software may not be able to protect you and your computer from every online threat, it can identify and remove the most dangerous malware. This is why it’s imperative to keep your antivirus program up to date and to check for updates every month.

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You should also check your provider’s website, which usually offers news and updates on the program and helpful tips for keeping your online information under lock and key. You’d be surprised how helpful a small update can be for your entire system!

Don’t Share Photos of Event Tickets

Picture this: you purchase tickets to see your favorite band perform live in concert. You’re so excited that you post a photo of your tickets on social media. The big day finally arrives, but when you show your tickets at the door, the staff say your ticket has already been scanned and they can’t let you in. What happened?

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These days, most tickets for concerts, shows and sports games have a barcode that is scanned before entering. It’s simple for people to copy these barcodes from a photo and create a duplicate ticket. Don’t let this happen to you!

Use Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication requires you to have two ways of proving your identity before logging into an account. Because it takes a little bit of extra time to set up, most people don’t bother using two-factor authentication. Nonetheless, this added security measure is worth your effort and time.

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With two-factor authentication, no one can gain access to your account without your email password or phone, even if your password is stolen. The website will ask for your email address or phone number to send you an additional access code that you can use when logging into your account.


Don’t Go Online When You’re Angry

It’s never been easier to openly lash out in anger online. However, the comments you publish on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram can have serious repercussions for your personal and professional life. This is why it’s best to keep yourself distanced from social media when you’re upset or angry.

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You don’t want to attack people in a digital form that can’t be erased and can potentially be saved to be used against you. No matter what kind of argument you’re having, it’s not worth the risk digital conversations can carry.

Be Careful About What’s in the Background of Your Photos

You are (hopefully) not dumb enough to share photos of your debit cards, credit cards, social security card or driver’s license. Even so, it’s easy to accidentally post a photo containing personal info. You may have left one of your cards on a table that happens to be in the background of your latest selfie.

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From there, anyone can zoom in, learn your information and steal your identity. Before posting any pictures online, scan the background for anything you wouldn’t want a stranger to see. And if you absolutely must share the photo, block out all the numbers beforehand.

Only Shop Online From Secure Websites

When you make an online purchase, you’re going to need to hand over your banking information, whether it’s a credit or debit card — and that’s exactly what cybercriminals are looking for. Ensure you only use personal banking information on secure websites when shopping.

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Fortunately, Apple Pay does an excellent job of encrypting your banking data, but it’s always best to limit your digital shopping habits to secure sites that have an "https" address. According to Boston University, these websites are secure for online shoppers and actively prevent your banking information from being exploited.


Avoid Broadcasting That You’re Going on Vacation

If you’ve watched Home Alone, you know how dangerous it can be for your home (and forgotten son) if someone knows you’re not at home. Your property can be broken into and your valuables can be stolen.

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This can be mitigated somewhat by hiring a reputable security company; but letting everyone know online that you won’t be in the area due to a well-earned vacation can still put your house at risk. That means you should until your vacation is over to post pictures and avoid letting too many people know that you’re traveling.

Close Down Inactive Accounts

Most people online leave behind a trail of abandoned accounts. Perhaps you’ve outgrown an old email address or you stopped using a social media account. But did you remember to actually delete the old account? If not, you’re leaving yourself susceptible to hackers.

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Abandoned accounts are easier targets for hackers because they are not monitored. Someone could break into your old account and access all sorts of sensitive data, all without you noticing. Though it may take some time to remember your old passwords, it’s in your best interest to delete unused accounts when possible.

Don’t Announce When You’re Leaving Your Office

You already know that you shouldn’t post about when you go on vacation. The same goes for when you leave your office building. Though you likely don’t need to worry about a real-life robbery there, cyber theft is another thing entirely.

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People love to share their every move on social media, but even a simple tweet about going to buy coffee can let cybercriminals know that you are away from your computer. Keep your location to yourself in order to keep hackers from knowing the best time to get to work.


Take Care When Sharing Photos of Your Desk

Of course, you can still let your followers know when you "rise and grind" or how much you’re loving the #freelancelife. However, you should always be cautious when posting a picture of your desk or workspace. Why? That’s often where people store their confidential personal and business data.

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Look at your desk and take note of all the private information that you wouldn’t want a cybercriminal to see. You may have invoices, private memos and written-down passwords lying around your desk. Before snapping a pic, make sure everything important is put away and out of sight.

Don’t Share Your Home Address

Your home address is yet another piece of personal information that you don’t want just anybody to see. Your friends and family know where you live, but you wouldn’t shout it out to the whole world. When you post a picture of your front door, you are doing just that.

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Though it doesn’t contain your whole address, clever folks can uncover your address using the street number from the photo and your social media accounts. Many people share their hometown in their social media profiles. From there, it only takes a quick Google search to find the rest of the address.

Only Download Apps From Known Websites

Apps are one of the newest methods cybercriminals are using to deliver dangerous malware to mobile devices. Malicious apps are fairly common, and more are made every year. In fact, mobile malware increases by a total of 55% every year.

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If you download one of these unsafe apps, you are putting your private data at risk. The best way to avoid this is by only downloading apps from services that you know and trust. On Apple devices, that means using the App Store, and on Android devices, using the Google Play Store.


Never Accept Friend Requests From Strangers

Think about all of the information readily available on your social media profiles. Anyone who looks at your profile can see your name, what you look like, your hometown, your habits, the places you visit, who your friends and family members are and more. Do you really want a stranger to know that much about you?

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Though not every stranger has bad intentions, it’s hard to tell at first glance who is looking for genuine friendship and who has something more nefarious in mind. To be safe, only accept friend requests from people that you know in real life.

Avoid Sharing Your Full Birth Date and Hometown

Birthdate and hometown are two of the most private pieces of personal data, but that doesn't stop people from sharing them in their social media profiles. You’d be shocked to hear what a scammer can do with just your birth date and your hometown.

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With this information, they may be able to guess your social security number. The first three numbers of your social are based on the zip code that was listed on your SSN application — likely your hometown zip code. Some numbers are also related to your birthdate, making it easier for an algorithm to determine your SSN.

Secure Your Online History With Privacy Settings Turned On

Hackers can learn a lot about you through your active browsing history. Fortunately, you can control a lot of this information through privacy settings turned on your browser. Web browsers, mobile browsers and social media platforms often have the built-in ability to disable tracking cookies and help keep you protected online. (Although it should be noted that service providers can track your browsing regardless.)

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However, these settings can be challenging to find, since companies usually want to use your personal information for marketing purposes. Once you find these online privacy settings, you should keep the relevant features enabled and head over to the company’s FAQ to learn more about its privacy policies.


Don’t Provide Too Much Information About Your Children

Your kids are no doubt adorable, and you love them very much, but that doesn’t mean you have to post their every movement online. When you share too much personal information about your children on the web, you’re making it easier for potential predators to find and harm your kids.

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With social media, it’s easy to learn a child’s name, their schedule, your name and your personal information. All of this can be used to stalk and potentially hurt your child. You don’t need to stop posting about your kids — just be mindful about how much you give away.

Watch Out for Text Message Scams

Phishing doesn’t just happen in your email; it can also occur through SMS texting. This type of attack is known as smishing. You may get a text with a link that says it's from a store, your school or your doctor.

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The link could contain spyware or direct you to a website asking for personal information. In general, trustworthy businesses don’t send emails or texts asking for sensitive data. Do an online search for the phone number and domain to see if they are associated with the organization they say they are.

Avoid Online Shopping While You’re Intoxicated

Drunk shopping never ends well, even when you’re not online. You’ll end up spending more than you can afford and likely buy things you don’t even need. The only thing that could make your impending hangover worse is waking up in debt. To save yourself more than a headache in the morning, you should keep your phone and laptop out of reach while intoxicated.

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Believe it or not, the average Amazon account holder spends over $400 on drunken eCommerce shopping trips. Don’t let yourself fall into this statistic, or worse, increase it even more.


Don’t Use Online Medical Sites to Give a Self-Diagnosis

One of the more popular medical sites for self-diagnosis is WebMD. Although it might be tempting to determine whether or not you have an illness, it’s best to trust your doctor over potentially misleading information online. Following directions from online medical sites can even put you in harm’s way.

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The best thing you can do is shut off your computer and schedule an appointment at your doctor’s office rather than attempting to treat yourself using methods that might not work or make your condition worse. Remember, a doctor’s opinion is always going to be better than any online health guru’s.

Avoid Fights on Social Media

From tweets to YouTube comments to memes, there are plenty of things online to make you angry. The best advice to keep in mind when you run into one of these situations? Don’t engage.

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Social media is not the place for nuanced discussions. Most online arguments end badly with everyone getting upset and no one changing their mind. Even the most well-intentioned posts can come off as snarky and mean. If someone you know has posted something offensive, take the conversation offline. If you don’t know the poster, the best thing you can do is let it go.

Use Different Devices for Banking and Recreation

Some gaming and movie streaming websites leave your computer screen littered with pop-ups. These can install dangerous malware on your computer or device without your knowledge. Hackers can then use this to gain access to your personal data.

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If you use the same device to pay a credit card bill or check your bank account, you are opening yourself up to a greater risk of hacking. These scammers can even use this information to steal your identity. If you can, experts recommend using different devices for recreation and important tasks like banking.