tagHow ToOnline Safety - The Basics

Online Safety - The Basics


I've been doing the "online thing" for so many years it's hard to remember a time when I didn't. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, you name it. I thought I knew all the ins and outs, and frankly, I'd never had a problem with anyone I met in all that time. All these claims about "strangers" online seemed silly to me. This was a community, no different from my own "real life" neighbors. In fact, I was even more familiar with some of my online pals than with my own neighbors!

Most people are good people, I reasoned. And for the most part, that's true. But there are a small percentage that prove that theory wrong, and the problem is, you just never know when you might run into one of them. You know all those news programs where they show the Jeffrey-Dahmer's-neighbor-type who says, "I never knew...!" Well, it applies in the cyber world, too. Most cyber-stalkers appear just as normal as our neighbors. If you lock your doors at night, and are careful to shred all your personal documents before putting them in the trash, shouldn't you take the same analogous precautions in your cyber communities, too?

I once met a man online. We clicked immediately, and it went from online to phone chat rather fast. I was amazed how quickly things seemed to fall into place, how simpatico we were. We discovered another coincidence. We only lived a few miles from each other! It seemed meant to be...

Not long after, we decided to hook up—so I drove to meet him at his apartment...

Can you imagine the way this story ends?

Does your mind fill in the blanks?

What's wrong with this picture?

I'll tell you now...this story does have a happily ever after. He was actually everything he claimed to be. Thankfully, he wasn't a serial killer or a rapist. We've been married for years and have two beautiful children. It seemed to prove my theory—most people are good people.

But that's simply because I was lucky. I cringe when I think about what could have happened, given my impulsive actions.

Unfortunately, my teenage daughter inherited my impulsive nature, and in spite of our warnings and precautions, ended up in a very precarious situation with a man who turned out to be a "cyber-stalker." In the end, we were able to protect her, and ourselves, from this predator, but it could have turned out very differently. I know now just how dangerous the online world can be, and there are ways you can protect yourself and your family you might not be aware of.

Meeting someone online used to raise eyebrows, but nowadays, it's old hat. Still, just because it's common doesn't mean it's always safe. Would you give your phone number to someone you met at the supermarket? Would you tell a waitress where you live? Would you tell your last name to someone you met in the locker room at the gym?

But that's what many of us are doing online. In fact, we're not just giving it out, we're broadcasting it, in great big neon letters above our heads—and most of the time we don't even realize it.

Most chat, bulletin board and Internet Service Providers ask you to fill out a profile about yourself. What many people don't know is this information is often available to anyone who might want to see it. If you fill a profile out with details about yourself, your family, and where you live, you're making yourself instantly vulnerable.

Also, if you're just casually chatting with someone, and answer that a/s/l question (age, sex, location for those of you who are chatting newbies) the only other question you'd have to answer is "What's your last name?" for someone to start searching the Internet for you. And the likelihood is, they'd find you.

There are plenty of search sites to locate people out there. In fact, several directories now have reverse look-ups, meaning I can type in your email address, or your phone number, or your address, and find your name. In some states, I can pull up your driver's license onscreen. Scary? It's not that hard. You don't have to be some computer whiz kid or private eye to do it, either.

It can be as simple as going to Google and typing your name in quotation marks. Think I'm kidding? Try it. Go type your name into a search engine: "John Doe" and see what comes up. Did you find yourself? If you didn't, try adding your location afterward: "John Doe" Idaho, and see what comes up. What you find might be eye-opening, and even scary. All someone needs to know is your last name and location, and there's all sorts of things they can find out about you.

Remember: if you can find you, so can they!

So the first thing to do is stop putting your personal information out there. The next thing is to Google yourself and find out where that information is and remove it. Take careful note of the Internet privacy policies of any company you deal with online. Most of us skip over this part, but it's actually very important. If you're filling out ANY form online, check to see what the site's privacy policy is. Who will see this information? Will it be sold? If anyone else is going to get your information, do not fill out the form.

Another issue develops when you have a personal web site or blog. Many people are very open, sharing information about friends and family, but this can backfire if you get into a cyber-stalking situation. It's safest just not to do it from the start. It's obvious to say don't post your personal information: full name, address, phone number. Duh! Right?

But I would go further. Don't use your real name and don't use your children's real names. There are lots of family blogs out there that have gone to using pet names or nicknames or initials when talking about family members ("Baby Boo" or BB) instead of using real names. This is preferable. And if you post pictures on your blog or website, be careful to exclude any with identifiable location features—sweatshirts with school names, recognizable landmarks, etc.

The other thing about websites to be aware of is the WHOIS lookup. Did you know that anyone can look up who a web site is registered to? And what comes up will include all of your personal information: name, address and phone number. Make sure, if you have a web site, you go through a company that will allow your WHOIS information to be anonymous!

Your email address is also an issue, especially if you have a local Internet Service Provider (ISP). The safest thing to do is use a website-based email service for anything you do online. Hotmail, Yahoo, Google—they all have email services that are free and allow you to send and receive email without revealing any personal information. (Just be careful not to fill out too much in your profile!) If you use the email that your local Internet Service Provider gives you, your email headers will reveal way too much information you didn't realize you were sharing, including your location, your ISP, and sometimes even your real name! If you want, you can even sign up for a free, anonymous email service (gmail offers it) that will provide forwarding of email messages to your ISP email address.

Be careful if you or your family are using an Instant Messenger service. Some versions of IMs will expose your Internet Protocol (IP) Address. Remember—privacy information is your friend! Check your IM service and read the privacy information available. Read up on how to protect your IP address, your private email address and any other information that may be displayed to someone sending you an IM with that IM service. The best thing is not to send or reply to messages from people you don't know. Use parental controls for minors and set it up so IMs from "strangers" are immediately refused.

Be careful, too, to use a unique user name for different services and places you join. Yes, this can be a pain, but you shouldn't use the same nickname twice. Why? Because if someone decides to start cyber-stalking you, you can move on and change your name without them being able to find you. But if you've used the same "nick" all over the web, they're going to be able to find you again (and again, and again) without too much of a problem.

You can chat and email and surf safely, you just have to be careful and aware. You can actually use free services like Anonymizer, which cloak you completely. Any website you've visited won't be able to trace your Internet Service Provider.

If you have minor children or older teens using the computer, make sure they are doing so in a main-traffic household area so you can keep an eye on them. Make good use of parental controls and invest in a computer "nanny" service. If you really don't want your children using the computer when you're gone, take the power cord (or keyboard) with you when you leave. Be sure you know their "friends" online. It's safest to only allow them to talk to people they already know in real life.

If you are single and dating on the Internet, just remember to use much more sound judgment than I did! Granted, my story turned out well—but it could have turned out very differently. Don't assume that everyone is trustworthy, even if most people turn out to be. If you do finally decide to meet someone from online, make sure you do so in a public place, take a cell phone, and tell a friend where you're going and with whom. You can even have a "back-up" call planned. Have your friend call you twenty-minutes into the "date," and ask, "Are you okay?" That can be your signal—if you feel unsafe, you can use the call as an excuse to end the date.

But what do you do if you or someone in your family becomes the victim of a cyber-stalker?

You should email the service and report them. Include as many details as you can (copies of emails and messages, their user name, whatever information you have.) If you're lucky and the harassment has only occurred online, close your account where the harassment has taken place. Get a new account and email address from your main Internet Service Provider, or change your ISP. Cancel or close any web-based email services and IM services you've used to contact this person or that they've used to contact you through. If the harassment has been offline, too, contact your local authorities and make a complaint. You can also change your phone number(s) and pay to make sure they remain unlisted.

Most people are good people. I still believe that. But after my daughter's incident with a cyber-stalker, I know much better how to protect myself and my family from the small percentage of those online who aren't good people at all. Because while I will always believe that most people are good people, I also now know it's always better safe than sorry.

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