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How to stay safe on the internet

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The internet opens all sorts of opportunities for young and old alike, whether it’s finding a local group to join, connecting with likeminded people on the other side of the world, selling unwanted items, or staying in touch with friends and relatives. But it also has its dangers.

Phishing, grooming, fraud and data theft are just a few of the threats lurking online. But as long as you take a few simple steps, you’ll stay safe while enjoying everything that life online has to offer.

What are some easy ways to stay safe online?

Firstly, you should be sure not to share any personal information with anyone you don’t know. Be wary of emails and phone calls out of the blue, especially if they ask for sensitive information like bank details. They might try and pressure you to act now or face dire consequences (like your bank account being emptied), so this is another red flag.

You should use strong passwords for all your online accounts, and never use the same password for multiple accounts. Passphrases – a longer sequence of words – are more secure. Where possible, you should use biometric authentication (like fingerprint recognition or facial recognition), as this is much harder for scammers to hack.

You can also turn on multi-factor authentication. This usually involves the website you’re signing in to sending you a one-off code via text. You have to enter this code as well as your password in order to sign in to the website, making it much more secure.

A virtual private network (VPN) can also help you stay safe. This will encrypt (i.e. disguise) your data like location, making it harder for hackers to steal. Our guide to VPNs goes into more detail.

What scams should I be aware of?

There are too many scams to list here, but the most common ones include tricking you into handing over personal data by pretending to be a bank, HMRC or a courier company requiring more information to deliver a parcel.

Banks will never ask you to transfer money to a “safe” account. This is a common scam to look out for.

Make sure you never install software at someone else’s request, as this can be used to monitor your computer and spy on your passwords.

Scammer might contact you by letter, phone, email, text message or social media, so you have to constantly be on your guard. Sometimes they will already have some of your information like name and address, which will help them sound more legitimate.

Visit our page on how to keep you and your family safe from scams.

Is online banking safe?

Generally, yes – but you still need to keep your guard up.

Don’t access online banking from unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots in places like hotels or cafes, as these can be compromised by hackers. Be wary of anyone watching you enter a password or PIN code, too.

And be very suspicious of calls/emails/texts claiming to be from your bank. If in doubt, look up their phone number on their website and call them back. Scammers can ‘spoof’ phone numbers to make it look like the call is coming from the bank’s legitimate phone number, so don’t automatically trust it.

For more information, read our pages on how to avoid common bank scams and how to protect your savings.

How do I keep my children safe on the web?

Children can do all sorts of things online, from schoolwork to gaming to chatting with friends to watching videos. Whatever they’re doing, there’s always the risk they’ll be exposed to inappropriate content or start chatting with someone who isn’t who they say they are.

The most important thing you can do is only let them use a connected device in a communal space like the lounge, rather than the privacy of their bedroom. Even better, have a dedicated tablet or computer for family use, so you can apply the appropriate parental controls.

But perhaps the most important thing you can do is educate them on what to look out for and what kind of information they should never share online, even with friends. Take an interest in what they’re doing online and engage in a dialogue about it. That way, if they do see anything inappropriate or are contacted by someone out of the blue, they won’t think twice about asking you about it.

Remember, the minimum age for most social media services is 13. Children under that age shouldn’t be using them at all.

For more information on how to keep children of all ages safe online, check out Internet Matters, which has loads of useful guides and resources.

Should I get antivirus software?

You can, but really the most important thing is knowing what to look out for. As long as you don’t download software from unofficial sources or open suspicious email attachments, you shouldn’t need expensive or complicated antivirus software.

Some of the bigger broadband providers, such as BT and Virgin Media, offer antivirus software with their plans (either free or as a paid add-on).

What can I do on social media to stay safe?

Check your privacy settings to see who can view your posts. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know, and take a close look at your location-sharing settings, as some apps will let people know where you are.

It's recommended that you turn your personal social media accounts private, so only people in your friends list can see your profile.

Most importantly, think about what you post and share. Not only could an ill-advised post get you in trouble personally or professionally, it could reveal sensitive personal information that could compromise your safety online. For example, it's best not to post about your holiday while you're away, as potential thieves will see your home is unoccupied.

What is phishing?

Phishing is the technical term for tricking someone online into clicking a bad link to enter their information on a fake website, or downloading software that will corrupt their device.

Phishing can take many forms, including spam email, robo-calls and dodgy text messages.

You can avoid falling victim to phishing by staying on your guard and not responding to unsolicited texts, emails or phone calls.

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