Tips for protecting your privacy online

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Tips for protecting your privacy online

Your online privacy is a matter of great concern to you and our team at AOL. As you read emails, check your stock portfolio or post status updates on Facebook, you leave behind invisible tracks on the internet. This information can be misused by hackers or identity thieves. The simplest way to keep your personal information private is to be smart about it.

Here are some tips to protect your online privacy. Some are easy, some are common sense, and some involve a bit of work.

1. Always read online privacy policies
Almost every Web site silently records what you are doing. Websites gather information -- such as the kind of hardware or software you use or even the address that your ISP has assigned you -- without your knowledge. However, these Web sites have privacy policies that will tell you what kind of information is being extracted from your computer and with whom this information being shared.

2. Opt out of mailing lists
Websites offer you several privacy options, including the option to opt out of mailing lists that share your information. You should opt out of being part of the list in order to keep your information secure. Some Websites make it easy by asking your permission before adding you to the mailing list, while other Web sites do the exact opposite and make it hard for you to opt out.

3. Get a separate email account for your personal work
Keep your work and personal email accounts separate. Why? Because your boss has the legal right to read your work email correspondence, which may include any personal information you have stored on your computer.

4. Teach your children not to give out personal information online without your permission
Federal law prohibits companies from collecting personal information from children under 13 years of age; however, there are certain websites that violate or skirt the law. Educate your children on how important it is to ask your permission before they give out their name, address or other information about themselves or their family. Make sure teenagers using Facebook and MySpace have privacy settings that allow only their real friends to see their profile, photos, videos, etc.

5. Be careful when using social networking and picture/video sharing sites
If you use a picture or video sharing site to share photos with friends and relatives, pay attention to the privacy settings on the site to ensure that you are not sharing photos with strangers, especially photos of your children.

6. Learn to use the privacy features in your browser
Internet browsers -- such as Internet Explorer, Safari, Camino, Firefox or Chrome -- have a variety of tools and plug-ins available to help protect your privacy and the security of the information you use on the internet. Take the time to learn about these features so you can better control the planting of "cookies" on your computer and identify insecure or fraudulent sites before you visit them. If you use a computer in a library or other public places, make certain you clear your browser history and memory cache before you leave. Depending on your browser, you can delete cached images from the Preferences menu or the Tools menu.

7. Make sure that online transactions are secure
Most e-commerce sites have a secure way to receive your credit card information. In most cases, the address for a secure Web site will start with "https." The "s" indicates that the site is secure. In addition, most browsers display a small picture of a lock on the browser frame at the bottom to indicate that the site is secure; however, just having both these features doesn't make a site legitimate. The company running it could be fraudulent or the website could be fake. Ensure that you enter your banking or transaction details only on a secure site.

8. Learn how to spot phishing and other scams
Before giving out personal information online, know who you're dealing with. You have to be especially careful because fraudsters, trying to get information out of you, create websites that resemble the sites of legitimate businesses. "Phishing" is a scam designed to steal your personal information under false pretenses, usually by tricking you into disclosing personal information such as your credit card and Social Security numbers and account passwords.

Some clues of fraud:

  • If an email address that claims to be from a bank or business headquartered in the United States ends with .cn or any other country code, it is not legitimate.
  • Messages marked "Urgent" are usually fraudulent.
  • Many fake sites will place a picture of a fake lock icon on their site. Ensure that the secure lock icon is in the browser frame and not inside the browser window.

9. Reject or delete unnecessary cookies
Cookies are small bits of computer code planted in your computer by most websites that you visit. They allow websites to collect and store information about your online activity and recognize your computer when you return or visit an affiliated site. For example, if you sign on to a website and obtain a user name and password, the cookies remember that information for you. Consult your browser's Help section to find out how to delete unnecessary or unwanted cookies.

10. Safeguard important files and communications
You should always keep your information secure and private.

It is important to:

  • Secure your laptop, phone and other portable devices with a strong password that cannot be guessed easily.
  • Never use family names or birthdates as passwords.
  • Keep your important files out of any shared or public folders.
  • In situations where there is a particular need for security, use encryption.

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Last updated: 03-24-2011
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