If you're not a technology wonk, you may not realize the Internet and the Worldwide Web are actually two different things. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. The Worldwide Web is a system of interlinked hypertext documents we access using the Internet. Regardless, the two terms have become almost interchangeable.
Together the Internet and the Worldwide Web have connected hundreds of millions of people around the globe with a wealth of information. According to Pew Research:
- 71 percent of Americans use the Internet on a typical day
- 90 percent access the Internet from home
- 44 percent go online at work
- 68 percent access the Internet via cell phone, tablet, or mobile device
Going online has become so popular more Americans say they would have more trouble giving up the Internet than giving up television (although that may be because they can stream their favorite TV shows via the Internet).
Taking the good with the bad
There is little doubt online communications have changed the world. On the positive side, the Internet allows people to gather and share information, facilitates marketing and sales of goods, supports communication in real time across great distances, and gives people the ability to do much more. On the negative side, the Internet may expose users to bullying, stalking, and privacy violations. In addition, the storage and transfer of electronic data – including personal information, credit card numbers, and other data – led to a cyber crime wave.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 16.6 million Americans (7 percent of the population age 16 or older) were the victims of identity theft during 2012. The vast majority of incidents involved the theft and fraudulent use of existing account information. Financial losses resulting from personal identity theft totaled almost $25 billion. That's about $10 billion more than the losses attributed to all other property crimes.
An ounce of protection
Ben Franklin once wrote, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That is certainly the case when it comes to protecting your personal data. Here are a few suggestions for securing your personal information online:
- Protect your accounts: Choose strong passwords that incorporate letters, numbers, and symbols and, just as importantly, do not use the same password for all of your accounts. If you're prone to forgetting passwords, keep a password list in your safe or invest in security software that will track passwords for various sites and allow you to access them with a single password.
- Look for security: If you make purchases online, be sure you have a secure connection. Look at the website address. If it starts with ‘https' or shows a green box with a padlock, typically the connection is secure. It's also essential to equip your computers and mobile devices with security software.
- Set account alerts: Many banks, financial institutions, and credit monitoring agencies offer alerts to notify consumers when changes occur with their accounts. These alerts often are email notices.
- Be wary: Be wary when using free WiFi. It's generally not a good idea to access financial accounts or password-protected sites on shared networks (free WiFi is giving you access to a shared network) because it is possible for hackers to track your actions. Kiplinger's cited an expert who suggested using your phones 3G or 4G mobile phone service to access the Internet may be a better choice than using free WiFi.
- Control your data: Facebook may ask you to complete your profile every time you visit, but you really shouldn't. It's smart to limit the personal information – birthdays, pet's and best friend's names, addresses, and other data – you share on social media websites. This information can be used to answer security questions and gain access to accounts.
- Read your bills: A lot of people pay their bills electronically and never take time to review the charges. No matter what type of payment option you employ, it's critical to review every charge. Unexpected charges could be accidental or they could be evidence your data has been stolen. If you find a mistake, report it right away.
- Take action: During 2012, one-in-four consumers who received a letter informing them their data had been breached became the victim of identity fraud. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, "While credit card numbers remain the most popular item revealed in a data breach, in reality, other information can be more useful to fraudsters. Personal information such as online banking login, username, and password were compromised in 10 percent of incidents and 16 percent of incidents included Social Security numbers.” If you receive a letter informing you of a breach, take steps to protect yourself such as setting up account alerts and/or enrolling in an identity protection service.
The Internet and Worldwide Web have become ubiquitous – a necessity for many Americans. As a result, it's important to be aware of the risks involved when going online and taking appropriate precautions to protect your personal and financial information.