Protecting Yourself in the Digital World

See also: Managing Your Online Presence

There is only one way to keep your computer completely safe from any kind of cyberattack—and that is never to go online or connect to the internet. However, this is not realistic. The whole point of going digital is to connect with others in the virtual world. You therefore need to find a way to keep yourself, your computer and your personal data as safe as possible, without compromising your online life more than absolutely necessary.

This page discusses some of the common forms of attack, and what action you can take ahead of time to keep yourself safe. It applies to any computer, including mobile phones, tablets or laptops, though some of the advice may be more specific.

Some definitions

Malware. Any piece of software designed to harm or damage a computer, system or network. Malware includes viruses, worms, ransomware, spyware, adware and Trojan horses.

Virus. One of the best-known forms of malware. A piece of software or code that can ‘infect’ a computer system and do some damage. Viruses generally need human interaction to spread, and are often attached to files.

Phishing. A fraudulent attempt to obtain personal data or information.

Scam. A fraudulent scheme.

For full definitions of all these types of malware, you may like to visit our Glossary of Digital Terms.

Protecting Yourself from Malware

There are two aspects to protecting yourself from malware: not being infected in the first place, and getting rid of malware that has become installed on your computer.

It is far better not to be infected with malware than to have to get rid of it afterwards, however good your threat detection and resolution.

This may not always be possible, but there are ways that you can help yourself. For example, never click on a link or open a file in an email from someone unknown—or even from someone known to you who does not provide an explanation. It is worth checking with the sender first to make sure it is genuine.

Even being very vigilant, however, you still need some back-up. The obvious and best way to protect yourself from malware is to install some anti-malware software.

There are plenty of options for this, some more expensive, and some free. You may even have antivirus software built in: Windows Defender, for example, is now a standard part of Windows 10 and above. Interestingly, the quality does not necessarily depend on the price: some very good products are free, or at least relatively cheap.

Deciding on the right anti-malware software is difficult. As with so many technological decisions, it really depends what you want to do. However, there are some important questions to consider, including:

  • What products are recommended for my operating system?

    First and foremost, you need the right product for your operating system. Everything is going to work better on the system for which it was designed. This is likely to mean different products for your phone, your laptop and your tablet—so it may be best to avoid a ‘bundle deal’ to ‘protect up to five devices with one product’.

  • Does it detect most of the known major threats?

    There are plenty of anti-malware packages that detect over 95% of known threats, including some that are relatively inexpensive—so don’t settle for anything less. Look for packages that protect using several methods, including scanning websites, scanning emails, and checking files.

    You may want to opt for two programmes: for example, Windows Defender may be built into your system, and you might then add an additional programme to detect malware that may not be covered.

  • Does it operate in real-time to remove threats?

    Ideally, you want a system that is operating quietly in the background all the time, and will detect threats rapidly. A retrospective scan may not be enough to keep you safe.

    You can choose to ‘mix and match’ your software, and have an anti-virus scan running constantly, but also use a back-up manual scan to pick up any other malware. If so, don’t forget to run your back-up scan every few days to a week.

  • Does it work efficiently, without slowing down your computer?

    Some anti-virus packages use a lot of processing power, which can slow down your computer. This may particularly be an issue with phones and tablets that have less processing power. Look for reviews in the App Store and Play Store to check this before buying.

  • Is it accurate?

    This means whether it detects genuine threats, and ignores benign files. Ideally you want a package that will rapidly identify genuine malware, but not touch your own files.

It is not always easy to answer these questions. However, good starting points are computer magazines, which often review software, and recommendations from local computer shops.

Cleaning and Defragmenting: Are They Necessary?

Ten or twenty years ago, the received wisdom was that you needed to periodically clean up and ‘defrag’ (defragment) your computer’s hard drive to keep it running efficiently. Is this still necessary?

Yes and no.

If your computer is getting on in years, and has started to run a bit slowly, it may be helpful to clean out some old files and programmes, and then defrag the hard drive. A cleaner may be a good way to organise this. However, you may also find that the cleaner takes up space and makes the computer run more slowly.

Newer computers often have this functionality built in so you don’t need to do it. Additionally, solid-state drives do NOT need to be defragmented.

It is therefore worth checking first to ensure that you are doing the right thing.

Protecting Yourself from Other Attacks

Viruses and other malware are, of course, not the only type of cyber-attack. For example, you may be subject to a ‘phishing’ attack, or fraudulent attempt to obtain personal data, or other scams.

Scammers and phishers have come a long way from the days of the ‘Nigerian prince’ needing your help to get money out of his country, and just needing you to transfer £100 to him first. Some can still be spotted because of mistakes in the English. Others come from an odd email address (you can check this by hovering your mouse over the sender’s details).

It is also fair to say that any email that offers you money provided you make a payment to someone first is likely to be a scam.

Others, however, are often extremely convincing. They may look like they come direct from someone trustworthy. For example, one recent scam involved emails that looked like they were from solicitors involved in house sales—they often came from the email address of the solicitors’ concerned—asking for money to be transferred to the ‘company bank account’.

The best way to protect yourself from these scams is always to be suspicious of anyone asking you for money by email—even someone you were expecting, like a tradesman or solicitor.

When you receive an invoice or request for money by email, always check that it is genuine, and that you have the correct bank details. It goes without saying that you should NOT use the number on the invoice, but research it independently, or use a number that you already know for that person.

This is especially important if the email tells you that this is a different bank account from a previous payment.

If you can’t do that, it is worth transferring a small amount of money first—say $5, €5 or £5—and asking your contact to confirm that this has been received before you transfer the bulk of the money.

Banks have also taken action to address these issues. Many now offer a check when you set up a new recipient for an online payment to ensure that the account belongs to the person you were expecting. If your bank does this, you can probably afford to be a little more relaxed about making your own check.

However, the bottom line is that the best way to stay safe is to look out for yourself. Be alert, and don’t take anything for granted.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Living the ‘New Normal’ in the Age of Covid-19

The Skills You Need Guide to Living the ‘New Normal’
in the Age of Covid-19

This eBook is designed to help you through the process of ‘going digital’ and managing other aspects of life during a pandemic.

From how to get yourself online, through how to keep safe, to working, learning and staying in touch with friends and family remotely, the Skills You Need Guide to Living the 'New Normal' in the Age of Covid-19 covers the key skills you need to survive and thrive.

The Most Important Thing You Can Do is Stay Alert

Research shows that across the world, most businesses view their employees as the ‘weak link’ in any attack. As individual computer users, the most important thing we can all do to keep ourselves safe is to be careful.

Don’t automatically click through on a link, or open a file that is sent to you.

If you send links and files to others, say what it is that you are sending, and why, so that others know whether it is trustworthy.

Ask questions before setting up new online payments.

And finally, of course, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

If you keep these basic rules in mind, and put these steps in place to protect yourself, you are much more likely to stay safe.