The Internet is now ubiquitous in our lives. We bank online, trade stocks, check the news and shop, all whenever and from wherever we desire to do it with the aid of wireless devices. Of course, pursuing much of this activity involves placing private information on certain Websites, including account numbers or credit card numbers.
In an ideal world the process would be wonderfully convenient and safe. Unfortunately, the convenience comes at a cost as the bad guys are out there attempting to gain access to our private information to use for their personal gain. Being safe when using the Internet has become vitally important from a financial standpoint, as well as from a personal safety standpoint for our children and grandchildren.
As the owner of a registered investment adviser firm, I an concerned about the safety of our clients' personal information every day. We spend a lot of time ensuring the safety of that information and to educate our clients about how to protect themselves. In the space allowed in this article we cannot begin to provide a complete primer on Internet safety, but will share a few thoughts on some basic things to defend your information.
Much of Internet based theft starts from small programs maliciously installed on your computer. These programs can transmit login names and passwords used on Websites back to the originator of the program. The process is called “key logging” and the fraudster can now go to your bank account to attempt to issue payments to himself or go to Amazon.com to purchase goods to be charges to your credit card.
Always have an anti-virus program updated and running on your PC. It irks me to pay $500 for a PC and then have to pay $50 a year for anti-virus software, but it is necessary. Microsoft offers a free anti-virus program called Security Essentials, which can be downloaded from Microsoft.com. It is not as sophisticated as some of the other more expensive systems, but should work for the cost conscious consumer.
Keep Email Off Your PC:
I’m not saying don’t use e-mail, just don’t download the actual e-mail to your PC. E-mail is the primary way that viruses and malware can gain access to your PC. Most e-mail providers today (gmail, Yahoo, Brighthouse, etc.) offer you the option of logging into your e-mail account on their server using your Web browser. There you can read, open attachments and delete or save e-mail without ever bringing the e-mail into the hard drive on your computer.
Don’t Skimp on Passwords:
For any Websites related to financial activity (bank, brokerage, credit card) make sure you use a complex password. “logmein” or “password” are not acceptable passwords. Nor is your name or some abbreviated form of your name.
A complex password will have some combination of upper case letters, lower case letters, and numbers. Special symbols like !,%,#,@ can also be used for complexity, but please note that most financial institutions like banks and brokerage firms do not allow special symbols. I don’t know the reason for this, but obviously they think it is a higher risk situation.
The other note on passwords is to change them periodically. Quarterly changing of passwords is probably a best practice, even though it is a hassle. Twice a year should be the minimum frequency.
Obviously this is a complex topic and perhaps I’ll follow up in a future article with some other considerations for staying safe on the web. But following these three concepts are the first steps.
Tom Breiter is president of Breiter Capital Management, Inc., an Anna Maria based investment advisor. He can be reached at 778-1900. Some of the investment concepts highlighted in this column may carry the risk of loss of principal, and investors should determine appropriateness for their personal situation before investing. Visit www.breitercapital.com.