A basic understanding of how Internet risks occur helps to place any Internet safety advice in context. Once you identify which factors have a greater impact on you and your family, you can adapt recommendations to your specific needs.
Take a moment to consider each of the six factors that contribute to the current online environment:
- Lack of knowledge. Consumers of every age and at every level of technical expertise lack broad online safety education. This lack of knowledge is not limited to young people, but extends to the general population, including computer specialists who may not know any more than others about online predatory behavior.
- Carelessness. Even when we ‘know better,’ we make mistakes. Usually those mistakes occur when we’re tired, rushed, or don’t have a complete understanding of the risks involved. This is especially true when there is no obvious cause and effect to help us correct our behavior. When you post information that is used a month later to rob your home, you are not likely to recognize a connection between the two events. In fact, the vast majority of victims of online crime will not recognize that an action they or someone else took online made them vulnerable to a criminal act.
- Unintentional exposure of (or by) others. It may be a teacher, school, parent, child, friend, employer, or after-school program that provides publicly accessible information that exposes you. Perhaps your own computer (or mobile phone, or other connected device) has been compromised with spyware that enables criminals to collect your personal information. Maybe when a friend’s computer or other Internet-enabled device was lost or stolen, your information fell into the wrong hands.
- Technology Flaws. Online products and services can expose consumers – either because the companies who offer them fail to secure their customers’ data and are hacked, or because a company fails to build in adequate safeguards and safety messaging into their product to protect consumers.
- Holes in consumer protection standards. We cannot place the full burden of online safety on consumers.
Because of the rapid growth of the Internet, governments have not yet been able to create a full set of standards and laws. Three key responsibilities lie firmly in the domain of government:
- Establishing minimum safety standards for companies and their products and services so that consumers can use technology without fear
- Monitoring companies' compliance with established safety standards
- Enforcing the laws and penalizing companies that fail to meet them. Fighting crime isn't a job for ordinary citizens.
- Criminal acts. Placing the word ‘cyber’ in front of -criminal, -thief, -robber, -molester, or –predator only changes the criminals’ tools, not their motivations or goals. They still want to steal your money, to dominate or abuse, or to be destructive. The Internet did not create crime, and sadly, it will not abolish it.
The first five issues in this equation have created an environment in which criminal and malicious acts can flourish. What is new is that the Internet has given criminals broader access to more people and information than ever before. Predators are generally 'equal opportunity offenders,' happy to target victims of any age. Young people represent only one segment; adults and seniors are equally at risk, though the motivation for exploitation of older consumers is often for financial gain rather than for emotional or sexual gratification.
You can be as safe in the online world as you are in your everyday life. Understanding why all consumers – regardless of age or frequency of Internet use – are exposed to online risk is a critical first step in becoming safer online.
Sharing personal information with the wrong people is one of your biggest risks online. Be sure you are comfortable with how this information will be handled BEFORE you provide it:
- Address and phone number
Risks include: Making the user a target for home break-ins as well as providing a stronger persona in identity theft cases.
- Names of husband/wife, father, and mother (including mother’s maiden name)
Risks include: Gaining access to even more confidential information as this data is often used for passwords or “secret question” answers, but also exposes additional family members to ID theft, fraud, and personal harm.
- Information about your car including license plate numbers, VIN (vehicle identification number), registration information, make, model, and title number of car, insurance carrier, coverage limits, loan information, and driver’s license number.
Risks include: Car theft, insurance fraud, and access to more of your confidential information.
- Information about work history and credit status
Risks include: Building a stronger fake persona and gaining more access to your financial records; ID theft.
- Social security numbers
Risks include: ID theft, fraud, and access to additional information about you.
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