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Last week’s ‘cyber-attack’ on the NHS and similar institutions in other countries shows that even the biggest organisations, employing teams of computer experts, can fall prey to computer crime.

So how can you stay safe when using your home computer, laptop or tablet? Well, one way is to not connect it to the internet, but just to use it ‘in isolation’. That’s fine if you just want to use a computer for a project like writing your memoirs, managing your home finances or storing digital data like photographs.

However, the vast majority of people use their computers as a doorway to connect with the outside world – for example, using email to stay in touch with family and friends – and that means connecting to the internet. That unlocks the door between your computer and the outside world, and means you need to be very careful about who or what can come through that door.

As long as you are connected to the internet, you can never be completely safe from scammers, computer viruses and even intentional cyber-attacks like the one against the NHS, but the good news is there’s lots you can do to minimise the risk.

If you would like to use a computer but feel baffled and even intimidated by the technology, many Local Education Authorities offer short introductory courses, often aimed at the older generation who haven’t grown up with computers. A good place to ask about such courses is your local library. There is also a wide range of beginners’ guides available, which explain computer basics in easy-to-understand language.

One of the basics for staying safe online is using strong passwords, and different passwords for each website that requires one. Another is making sure your computer’s software – its operating system, internet browser and security software – are up-to-date. Regular updates should be automatically downloaded when you’re connected to the internet. The best general advice is to never take anything at face value when you are online. When you switch on the internet, switch on your suspicious mind!

The older generation tends to be more trusting, as they judge others by the high standards instilled in them. But when you’re online you need to be more cynical and suspicious, just as you might be when opening your front door to a stranger or unsolicited caller. Never open an email attachment if you are at all suspicious of it or the sender, just delete it instead. If you get an unsolicited email, be wary of it, and never, ever give out personal details, especially financial ones, online.

You might also get a phone call claiming to be from your internet supplier or operating system (typically Microsoft) saying there is a problem with your computer. They will ask you to turn it on and go through various steps. Don’t do it – it’s a scam which will let crooks access the information stored on your computer. If you get a call like that, hang up.

You may get emails which appear to be from your bank. Don’t trust them. Scammers pretend to be who they’re not to get information from you. If you are suspicious, call you bank. This is especially important if you do online banking. It is quick, convenient and usually very safe, but crooks try to take advantage by sending emails which appear to be from your bank but aren’t. You can find out more about safe online banking at www.financialfraudaction.org.uk

Shopping online is also convenient and gives you a massive choice of products, but again there can be risks. Be careful who you buy from and how you pay. Buying from some foreign websites can also carry extra risks. If you are buying from a website, check that its address start with ‘https’ – the ‘s’ stands for secure. There should also be a padlock symbol in the browser window frame (where the website address appears), not on the main part of the screen.

When you buy a computer it might come with security software already on it, or a recommendation to buy it with the computer. This might be referred to as ‘Firewall’ or ‘anti-virus protection’. Its job is to screen out potentially dangerous or malicious software downloads and warn you of sites which might not be secure. There is an annual cost, but investing in good security software is well worth it if you intend to use the internet.

Some scammers target potentially lonely people looking for a relationship online. Again you need to be wary; things, and people, are not always what they seem online. Trust your instincts, and never send money to someone you’ve met online. Similarly, you may receive unsolicited offers for goods or services that appear very tempting. The general rule of thumb is that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Going online is a bit like visiting a new city or country; there are lots of fun and exciting things to do, but it’s unfamiliar territory and there could be hidden dangers, or even people looking to take advantage of ‘the new kid in town’. You need to keep your wits about you, don’t be too trusting or take chances, and always err on the side of caution.

You can find lots more good, free advice about staying safe online at www.getsafeonline.org and other useful tips on the government website www.cyberaware.gov.uk

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