How to stay safe online

Staying secure is a constant challenge, requiring a blend of hardware, software, good choices and eternal vigilance.

Monday, 20 September, 2021

We tend to think of the internet as a modern construct, yet its origins date back to the 1960s – as do concerns about its security.

The ARPANET was created by the American military to enable missile bases to communicate with each another even if command posts or sister sites were destroyed.

Attempts were made by Russian agents to hack it, and some proved successful – as portrayed in the fabulous drama series The Americans.

The first computer virus was created in 1981, four years before the world’s first website went live in America.

By 1986, viruses were being developed to target specific operating systems or devices.

The 1990s brought unfettered peer-to-peer communications across a largely unencrypted online network, and numerous safety and security threats quickly evolved in response.

Today, concepts like trolling, phishing and Trojans are well-documented, if not always recognised by their victims.

As a result, staying safe online requires a multidisciplinary approach to electronic devices – especially if you have children sharing your broadband connection…

What are the main challenges to staying safe online?

These are the main issues to be aware of. We consider each in turn below, with suggestions on how to mitigate and minimise them.

1. Malware

The problem

Malware is an abbreviation of malicious software. A virus is a form of malware, but modern antivirus software covers everything from spyware to worms.

Each has its own purpose and profile. Worms are mostly designed to commandeer bandwidth or processing power; spyware tracks user activity; viruses are mainly destructive in nature.

Malware can be embedded in compromised websites, delivered via email, shared across social media sites or installed as a seemingly innocent app/program/utility/update.

The solution

Staying safe online often involves specialist software, and a good antivirus is a must for a family computer. Allow your chosen utility to update as often as it wants.

Vigilance also helps. Don’t open an email attachment from a stranger, never grant permissions to unknown software, and avoid visiting websites with obscure top level domains.

You can generally trust familiar TLDs like .com, and .org. Conversely, avoid websites with widely abused TLDs like .work, .review or .cn.

Use a web browser which identifies dangerous websites by their lack of HTTPS certification or poor reputation, and be wary about clicking links shared via email or social media.

2. Fraud

The problem

Online fraud is endemic, and since many victims are either embarrassed by or unaware of their status, it’s hard to quote accurate figures on its prevalence.

We do know identity fraud increases every year, ranging from advance fee payment scams to banking and card fraud.

Malware is often used to commit fraud, though lost or discarded documentation may also enable criminals to empty your bank account or steal your identity.

The solution

A computer that starts running slowly might contain spyware. This form of malware lets third parties watch as user credentials are entered, so they can impersonate you later.

Email fraud is rampant, but legitimate companies will never ask for personally identifiable information (PII) via email. Be very wary of emails asking you to take urgent action.

When you receive an email, hover your cursor over the sender’s name. It might display as HMRC, but if the sender’s email address is, it’s clearly fraudulent.

Check online bank accounts daily (ideally through a smartphone app requiring biometric login), reporting any suspicious activity. Also change your financial passwords periodically.

3. Extreme content

The problem

The internet offers ample opportunity to indulge a wide range of tastes and preferences, but people of a more sensitive disposition may not wish to encounter graphic sexual content or extreme political viewpoints.

However, when family members (especially kids) share a broadband connection, it’s hard to police what impressionable minds might see without recourse to filters and eternal vigilance.

The solution

Firstly, consider harnessing the parental filters offered by ISPs through routers and web browsers. These may stifle legitimate activities, but they do block extreme content.

Periodically change web-enabled device passwords, and restricted web access for kids. Check if you can disable devices at a certain time each evening, or when you’re not around to supervise.

It’s possible to block individual sites through web browsers or tools like Windows Hosts, while software packages including K9 Web Protection and OpenDNS may be worthwhile.

Don’t install the Tor browser on devices accessed by children. Tor has many legitimate uses, but it also serves as a gateway to the Dark Web’s labyrinth of unwholesome content.

4. Abuse

The problem

Until social media sites and bulletin boards insist on traceable ID verification, the internet will remain awash with trolls, bots and cyberbullies, all revelling in their anonymity.

Children are especially prone to being trolled and insulted, while grooming and more insidious forms of abuse remain growing threats.

Online harassment and stalking is illegal in England and Wales, but social media sites are poor at responding, while the police are unlikely to intervene quickly.

The solution

The best solution to online abuse involves minimising your exposure to forums and social media sites – or not using them at all unless they’re well-moderated and genuinely valuable.

Never engage with trolls – simply end the debate. Block them, report them, stay offline. Don’t mention sensitive or personal information that might be used against you in future.

Don’t let kids create their own social media profiles. The minimum age limit is 13, but that’s still too young to navigate these sites with the requisite maturity.

Watch out for children becoming more withdrawn and upset after being online, and consider your own mental health, too. Social media’s artificial reality is addictive, yet also corrosive.

Practical tips for staying safe online

Staying safe amid a whirlwind of threats

Over and above the preceding sections, observing a few golden rules will maximise the chances of everyone in your household staying safe online.

If you’re not at home, log into a VPN before using insecure public WiFi networks.

Stick to websites offering HTTPS security, and never provide account details to strangers or people you don’t trust. Don’t assume anyone online is who they claim to be.

Never share PII if it could compromise you – photos of your street if you’ve adopted a child, upcoming holiday plans if you live in an area enduring high burglary rates, etc.

Approach unsolicited electronic communications cautiously. Scammers create a sense of urgency to rush you into making bad decisions, so step back and consider what’s being asked.

Antivirus software will spot many scams and phishing emails, while web browsers also do their best, but neither can entirely replace personal vigilance.

Finally, never use weak or obvious passwords. Check our guide to improving password security for in-depth advice.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!