Convenience, efficiency, and thrift are the hallmarks of online banking. By banking online, you can pay bills in seconds, automatically balance your checking account, and save money on stamps. (Some companies even offer discounts for electronic payments.) Unfortunately, cyber criminals also find online banking convenient for ripping off unwary consumers, using a variety of scams to purloin passwords and account numbers. Here's how to make sure you don't get your pocket picked online:
Be wary of suspect email. Never directly answer or respond to an email from your bank. Cyber thieves often copy the graphics and logos of financial institutions, so a fraudulent email can be virtually indistinguishable from a legitimate message, according to experts at security firm Bitdefender. Instead, always open a separate browser window and type in the address for your bank's site. If there's a legitimate question or issue related to your account, you can find the message there. If not, you've just prevented someone from stealing your password.
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Pick a complex password. The weakest link in the security chain may be your password. There are programs that scan Facebook accounts, for example, looking for personal information that can then be used to guess passwords. So don't use pet names, birthdays, or favorite foods. Use a password that's a combination of letters and symbols, as well as uppercase and lowercase characters. If you can remember only one complex password, make it the password for your email account. "It's the most important because access to your email allows anyone to then reset the passwords to everything else," including your bank accounts, says Kevin Mahaffey, cofounder and chief technology officer of software security firm Lookout.
Use a safe browser. Use a browser that automatically warns you of suspect websites, which can steal security codes and account numbers. Mahaffey uses Google's Chrome browser. It has automatic phishing (fake email and website scams) and malware protection, which will warn you if a site you're about to visit is suspected of criminal activity.
Update, update, update: It's a chore, to be sure, but security experts recommend that consumers keep their software up to date. It will keep your computer protected with current security patches and fixes.
Get antivirus help. Use an antivirus software package to periodically scan your computer. There are plenty of reputable free programs from the likes of Avast, AVG, and Bitdefender. So there's no excuse not to use one.
Stay safe on the move. Online banking offers the convenience of paying bills when you're on the road. But you should never use a friend's computer or a public PC. A stealth program could be lurking there to surreptitiously record your keystrokes and then transmit the information to criminals.
Protect your phone. More and more people are saving valuable time by using their mobile phones to carry out their banking chores. However, the same threats that exist on a PC also exist on handsets. So use caution and a security program like Lookout.