How to Surf the Internet Safely

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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1. NEVER    click on a link that is contained in an e-mail, instant message, or post to a Usenet or other group.

2. NEVER    open or install a program directly from the Internet. First, download it to your hard disk, scan it with your anti-virus software, and only then, if it is clean, install it.

3. NEVER    open or install a program directly from a CD-ROM or DVD. First, scan it with your anti-virus software, and only then, if it is clean, install it.

4. NEVER    enter any personal details in forms on unknown sites.

5. NEVER    type your User ID or password unless you see the LOCK icon at the bottom of the screen and the Web address starts with https://

6. NEVER    click on a pop-up, no matter what it says! Don't click on it even if you want to close it.

7. NEVER    open attachments that you receive by e-mail. If in doubt, save the attachment to the hard disk, scan it with your anti-virus software, and only then, if it is clean, open it. Try to read all your e-mail messages in text format, rather than HTML.

8. NEVER    visit unfamiliar Websites. First, go to Google (www.google.com) and check whether the site is legitimate and does not carry malware. Only if it is clean, visit it for the first time using the Opera browser.

9. CHANGE    your passwords frequently; use complex passwords (example: 7Yby89IfD); never give your passwords to anyone.

10. UPDATE    your Operating System, Antivirus, Firewall, Antispyware, and computer manufacturer's utilities DAILY.

11. SCAN    your computer for malware every time you use the computer, after you have used it.

12. ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS? Stop everything you are doing, disconnect from the Internet, and scan the computer for malware. Examples of suspicious behavior: persistent pop-ups; the computer or connection slow down considerably; repeated re-boots; mouse or keyboard freeze; strange messages and alerts.

European Banks Threatened by Identity Theft 

European banks, from Sweden to Austria, are likely to face, in the near future, an unprecedented wave of attempts at identity theft. Hackers from Latvia to Ukraine and from Serbia to Bulgaria are now targeting financial institutions. The global crisis has added to the rows of unemployed former spies, laid-off bankers, and computer programmers. Networks of state-sanctioned secret agents, knowledgeable financiers, and computer-savvy criminals have sprung all over Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans.

How can Europe's banks defend themselves?

1. By assigning account or relationship managers to all business accounts and individual accounts above a certain size. This is the practice in private banking and investment banking, but it has yet to spread to retail. A one-on-one line of communication between client and specific bank officer places an insurmountable obstacle in front of hackers and criminals. Account managers, aided by smart software, can monitor unusual patterns of activity in bank accounts and block suspicious transactions.

2. Banks should allow their clients to "block" their accounts at no charge to the client. Account blockage means that all transfers from the account require the confirmation and approval of one or two specific bank officers who know the client personally. Thus, even if a hacker or a criminal were to succeed to effect a transfer of funds, such illicit and damaging activity could be blocked by the bank.

3. Banks should ignore and disallow instructions in the account received by e-mail or by fax. E-mail and fax communication is amenable to spoofing, hijacking, hacking, and other forms of impersonation. Even Web-based e-mail services such as Gmail are highly insecure, especially over wireless networks.

4. Instructions by fax could be accepted only after the client provided, verbally, a one time code (see below).

5. Verbal communication should be conducted via mobile phones, not fixed or land lines. The mobile phone's SIM card allows for tracing in case a crime has been committed. On many networks the communication flow is encrypted. Man-in-the-middle attacks and interception are more difficult with cell phones, though not impossible.

Online Banking Safeguards

All of Europe's major banks offer to their customers financial services and products through the Internet. But there's a problem: computer security. To withstand the coordinated onslaught of hackers and cyber-criminals, who are constantly trying to empty the bank accounts of their victims, online banking Websites must incorporate many defensive safety features. These render the entire experience cumbersome and complicated and deter the vast majority of clients.

Generally speaking, European banks are far safer than American ones as far as online banking and their online presence go. The list below is short and by no means exhaustive and is based on a study conducted at the University of Michigan by Atul Prakash, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science, and two doctoral students, Laura Falk and Kevin Borders:

1. All the pages of the bank's Website must use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS encryption technologies. In the Internet Explorer Web browser, a small, yellow padlock icon appears at the bottom or the top of the page when such encryption is available and the web address is rendered green. Encryption prevents hackers from tapping into the exchange of information between the user's computer and the bank's servers and routers. Most browsers now offer also a wide variety of anti-phishing protections.

2. Users should not use their computer keyboard to type in passwords. Many computers are infected with keyloggers: small software applications that monitor the user's typing and pass on the information to networks of criminals. Instead, the bank should provide a "virtual keyboard" (a tiny on-screen graphic that looks like a keyboard). Users can then click their mouse and press the various "keys" of the virtual keyboard to form the password. Some banks use Java "sandboxing" and virtualization technologies in order to isolate the online banking session from the user's potentially-infected browser or computer. The US Department of Defense has just released a stand-alone application which, when clicked, contruct a whole virtual "computer" desktop for a single secure session and, when the session is over, deletes it without a trace.

3. The banking Website should not re-direct the user to other domains or sites (which potentially are not as secure).

4. The bank should insist on strong passwords: minimum five characters, allowing combinations of numerals and letters, including capitalized ones. Few banks adhere to this rule, though. Many of them allow passwords with only 4-5 numerals.

5. The bank should never send any information pertaining to the account - especially not passwords - via e-mail. Many European banks violate this cardinal rule by sending a staggering amount of information about the account via email, including account numbers, balances, movements, and ownership.

6. The bank should insist on "two-factor authentication". The user would need a username and password to access the Website. But, to transact in the account, he would make use of one time "tokens" (codes). Each user should be equipped with printed lists of such codes or with a special device that generates them. They can also receive the codes via SMS (which is highly insecure as the text message can be intercepted in real-time). The codes are used to transfer money, change the password, change the limit of withdrawal, give instructions regarding securities and deposits, etc.


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