5 Steps to Using Online Financial Sites Safely

Every year computer users who use the Internet to check account balances, transactions, and even paying bills grows by nearly 30%. According to one Pew study, more than 50 million Americans use online banking services. 50 million sounds like a large number, but that still reflects less than 50% of online American adults. Bank web sites continue to evolve by becoming easier to use, more secure, and more helpful than ever before. In fact, many banks rather that their customers check their web site for answers rather than call or visit a branch. However, many people shy away from online banking because of security fears.

I’m going to outline, for you, five simple steps that you can take to keep yourself and your finances safe on the Internet.

Step 1:  Computer Security

Before you do anything on the Internet, make sure your computer is secure by having solid, up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software running. I currently recommend Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows 7 or Vista users and Avast if you use Windows XP. For high speed Internet users, make sure you have a firewall setup (the Windows firewall is ok) or use your connection through a router than can be purchased at any office or electronics store. If you have a wireless Internet connection in your home, make sure it is password protected. Lastly, I highly recommend that all computer users use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome as their primary browsers.

Step 2:   Strong Passwords

Most banks are good about requiring their customer’s to change their password every 3-6 months. If yours does not require a change, you should do it anyway. Changing your password frequently is a great way to keep your online financial data secure. Use these rules when creating a password:

  • NEVER use the same password for your bank or financial institution that you do for your Internet service
  • NEVER use any part of your name or birth date in your password
  • ALWAYS use a combination of numerals, upper and lower case letters, and special characters (@,#,&, etc) in your password
  • ALWAYS right your password down and keep it in a safe place?not on a sticky placed on your monitor
  • ALWAYS change your password at least every 3 months
  • Have some sort of password management system!!

Step 3:  Avoid Phishing attacks

Although most identity theft crimes occur offline, phishing attacks are the most common method of identity theft online. Phishing is the technique of sending emails or luring you to a web site that appears to be your bank’s, credit card company, or other financial institution then asking for all of your financial and personal data. These sites/emails will ask for your full name, online account user name and password, mother’s maiden name, social security number, account numbers and other personal data. NEVER give out this type of information on ANY web site.

Your financial institution will never send these types of emails or ask you for this information via a web site. When in doubt, always call your bank.

Step 4:  Use caution when traveling

If you travel with your own laptop and connect to the Internet via a secured wireless connection (requires a password), online banking shouldn’t be too much of a problem. When connecting to wireless Internet connections, make sure they are indeed coming from the proprietor of the hotel, café, etc. Some hacker types can pose as a wireless provider, but really you are connecting through their computers and thus they can see what you are doing and typing. I highly recommend never using a public computer (library, Internet Café) to access financial web sites. Doing so poses too much of a risk that your data and identity can be stolen by an unscrupulous computer user using the computer to collect online information.

Step 5:  Be smart

Never underestimate your intuition if something feels fishy, it probably is. Bail out of whatever you are doing and then contact your bank and report the problem to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) US-CERT is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Overall, online access to your financial data will save you a lot of valuable time and is available 24 hours a day. Just use caution and these five simple rules to help insure that your online financial activity won’t cause you problems.

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