Play safe in cyberspace

There are many prowlers out there on the Internet who want to steal your personal information and cheat you or simply irritate you. Here’s how to take guard against them

Phishing: Don’t bite the bait

While the term “phishing” was coined in the Nineties when hackers tried to steal AOL accounts, it has gained infamy of late. Today a hacker will spoof a URL of say a banking site and send you a harmless-looking e-mail, directing you to that spurious site. When you go there, all the information which you key in like user name and password will be captured by the spoof site. So it’s always better to go directly to a bank or company’s official site. Also be wary if a URL has the “@” symbol.

In 2003, in the famous e-bay phishing scam, users received a mail telling them that if they didn’t click a particular link, then their accounts would be suspended. Always call or check with the official Website if you get such a message.

SPAM: Stupid Pointless Annoying Messages

Spam is the biggest problem that all of us face in cyberspace every day. What started of as an unsolicited commercial e-mail, has become one of the biggest nuisance values today. So how does one stop being at the receiving end? The first is to put a spam filter, available with most e-mail clients. You can even download free software for the same from the Web.

Secondly, beware of putting out your email in discussion forums and comments columns. Many spammers simply harvest e-mail off the Internet. Never make the biggest mistake of replying to spam. If you do that, then you’re really opening the floodgates to spamming. For then, the spammer will know that yours is a valid e-mail ID. Finally always report all spam messages through your email client in an effort to get the spammer blocked out for good.

And also, this is where multiple email IDs help. You can keep one for just your friends and a different one for official stuff. Also, when you are sending forwards or bulk mails it’s better to bcc to all, rather than cc. If you respect the privacy of other people’s email IDs, then they will respect yours.

Salami Slicing: A bit at a time

Salami slicing is when somebody steals a very small amount from your bank account. Usually, the last two digits (cents in the case of America) are rounded off. Mainly done by employees of a financial corporation and people have been known to accumulate those tiny amounts into sometimes millions of dollars. The salami-slicing program will round off the amount from the transaction and transfer the amount to a hidden bank account. This is very hard to detect and the most you can do is check your bank statements more carefully. Salami slicing first appeared in the Hollywood film Superman 3, in 1983.

Identity Theft: Is that you?

When multiple and false identities are common, can identity theft be far behind? Identity theft in the real world was when someone assumed one’s identity to steal their money or frame them for a crime. Identity theft in cyberspace is much much easier to do. So always make sure you are on your guard. During transactions, check if you’re on the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). You can do this by seeing if the http has changed to https in the URL. There should also be a small lock icon in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window. You can also check for digital certificates like VeriSign. And after you’ve done the transactions, check your e-mail for confirmations.

Also don’t put out too much personal information on the Net. It could be collected, put together-result, you could be impersonated.

Spim: Yes, it’s spim

Spim is spam during instant messaging. Some instant messaging systems maintain a directory of users, which spammers get hold of and then bombard IM users with spim. This is much more annoying than spam, because a pop-up window opens in your screen and it currently has a bigger growth rate than spam. However, experts say this will never become that big a problem. For one, unlike e-mail, IMs have a restricted buddy list, and you can easily block other users. Second, it’s difficult for a spammer to physically sit and type that fast to send out stuff as fast as an e-mail spammer can do.

Many of us are careless in cyberspace because it’s a virtual world, but the problems can spill into the real world, so be on guard all the time.

(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in July 2005)