Cybersecurity Awareness Month Part III

To help raise awareness among all Americans, the President has designated October as National Cybersecurity Awareness Month.  Last week, I wrote about some of the specific threats we face every time we use a computer.   However, we are not helpless against these threats.  In a video released last week, President Obama identified some basic things that all computer users can do to improve their cybersecurity and better protect themselves online.  In this post, I would like to expand further on these tips that computer users can adopt to improve their "cyber hygiene." 

Keep your security software and operating system up-to-date.  At a minimum, your computer should have current anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a firewall to protect yourself from hackers and malicious software that can steal sensitive personal information.  Hackers also take advantage of Web browsers and operating system software that do not have the latest security updates. Operating system companies issue security patches for flaws that they find in their systems, so it is important to set your operating system and web browser software to download and install security patches automatically.

Protect your personal information online.  Millions of people become victims of identity theft each year.  One way that cyber criminals convince computer users to divulge their confidential personal information is through fake "phishing" emails, which are often cleverly disguised to look like authentic emails.  Be wary of clicking on links in emails that are unfamiliar and be very cautious about providing personal information online, such as your password, financial information, or social security number.

Know who you are dealing with.  It is remarkably simple for online scammers to impersonate a legitimate business, so you need to know who you are dealing with.  If you are thinking about shopping on an unfamiliar website, do some independent research before you buy.  Similarly, before you download software, be sure that the software developer is trustworthy.  Cyber criminals will often embed the capability to steal passwords and files into free software. 

Learn what to do if something goes wrong.  If your computer gets hacked, the effects may be obvious (e.g., deleted or corrupted files), or they may be subtle (e.g., slow computing performance).  As a first step, you should scan your computer with updated anti-virus software.  You may wish to get professional assistance through your computer’s manufacturer, computer retail store, or local computer technician.  You can also alert the appropriate authorities by contacting your Internet Service Provider or the Internet Crime Complaint Center.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can assist if you are subject to identity theft.  You can also forward spam or phishing emails to the FTC at spam@uce.gov.

To learn more about cybersecurity tips please visit www.onguardonline.gov and www.dhs.gov/cyber

John Brennan is Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

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