Scams are getting more sophisticated: protect yourself

Sarah Coles

Internet scams are getting more sophisticated, so that any of us could be taken in - including the security experts themselves. Clicking on the wrong link in an email can leave you vulnerable to criminals, who could convince you to part with vital information or upload a virus to your computer in order to steal your details.

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Brian Barrett, news editor of Wired magazine, says that rather than simply being good enough to convince people without much online experience, they are now convincing regular internet users who think they know better

It's important, therefore, to take seven steps to protect yourself.

1. Always always always think twice before clicking
The emails may tempt you to panic that there is a discrepancy with your PayPal account or that you need to re-authorise your Google account, but don't act in a panic. Take the time to do some simple checks before you do anything. You should, for example, check the email address it was sent from - hover over the address and the real sender will appear - which is often not the official email of the company at all - despite initial appearances.

2. Don't be convinced just because they know specific information about you.
These scams are known as spearphishing, because scammers will include a few details they have taken from social media, or bought from hackers, to make them appear more convincing. The same rules apply, take a breath, and check the email address.

3. Check with the sender before you click an attachment
If the email claims to come from an internet retailer or Paypal, then log into Paypal or the retailer's website - not using the link in the email. If there's some sort of problem it will be flagged here, and you can deal with it direct. If there isn't a problem, you know you have been targeted by criminals and need to delete the email immediately.

4. Don't download any attachments
Some criminal gangs will send out malicious software as attachments. They will convince you to click on it and download it, but rather than proving to be something vital, it's actually malware, which will hide in the background on your computer, watching for when you visit key websites - like internet banking - and then monitor user names and passwords.

5. Beef up your virus protection
It's well worth paying for virus protection for all your devices, which will scan anything you click on for viruses before anything can be downloaded. You will also need to check regularly for updates, which will patch your virus protection to defend your devices against newer viruses and malware.

6. Get better passwords
One of the best ways to protect your data online is to work on better passwords. There are several better alternatives to a memorable word or name, which are far harder to guess. One option is to think of a memorable phrase and use the first letter of each word (changing them into numbers where for example there's an e that could be a 3 or an s that could be a 5). Alternatively, there are a number of password generators. Comparethemarket has produced a password generator to create strong, secure passwords for all your online accounts - which might be a useful place to start.

7. Assume it's a scam until proven otherwise
The best approach by far is to assume it's a scam until it's proven otherwise. You should be wary of emails out of the blue, ideally not open any suspect emails, and definitely not open any attachments. Check the sender, consider the subject and then do your own separate research to see if it is genuine. If in doubt, it's always better to assume someone is trying to take you for a ride.