Internet Pitfalls - The 7 Biggest Dangers Online

Thomas Köhler

Whether for shopping, social media, or banking – we use the Internet for nearly everything, and often, with far less care than is called for. Cybercriminals know this and try to make the most of it by bullying, defrauding, or extorting anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. In this article, we'll let you know what the seven biggest dangers online are as well as some practical countermeasures and remedies.

From tracking to malware: Below, you'll find the seven biggest dangers online, increasing in severity. For each, we'll briefly explain the threat as well as the steps you can take to combat them:

Tracking
Website owners, companies, or even criminals surveil and monitor your activities online using cookies, also engaging in IP address and browser fingerprinting.

Spam
Junk emails don't only clog up your inbox, they can also provide a vector for malware to get onto your system, or signal an attempt to gain access to your personal data.

Data Leaks
Whenever an organization or website suffers a data leak, reams of personal data and passwords are suddenly made public, instantly making you vulnerable to cybercriminals.

Doxing
Unfortunately, cyberbullying has grown in veracity and scale. Doxing indicates the malicious disclosure of personal or private information online, often in the hope that the victim will be targeted in one way or another as a result.

Identity Theft
For quite a while, criminals have been living comfortably by digitally defrauding others. Fraudsters misuse personal data like birthdays, addresses, and social security numbers to all sorts of devious ends.

Phishing
Cybercriminals gain access to sensitive data through fake emails or websites. Thankfully, by exercising caution and employing a few different tools, it's possible to protect against phishing.

Malware
Malware and ransomware are, lamentably, a big part of the Internet. Using these, criminals are able to take advantage of security exploits in your browser or operating system, infecting your PC.

Tracking

Businesses and website owners use tracking to follow their visitors' Internet activity. The usage of cookies, which monitor your behavior, needs to be explicitly approved before using reputable sites. Most of the time, however, you won't be asked for your consent, or, you'll simply approve all of the options shown.

First-party cookies allow website owners to follow user/visitor behavior on their site, that is to say, what they click on, and what they're interested in. Tracking content that originates from someone other than the site's owner is known as a third-party cookie. This is used to monitor user behavior occurring beyond that of the site itself, such as when a visitor clicks on an ad banner or plays a YouTube video.

Once the current browser session has ended, most cookies are deleted, however, some continue to keep tabs on user behavior for a specific period of time, all the while gathering data. Such data is frequently used to personalize ads, however, telephone numbers, names, and other personal information can also be exploited by cybercriminals.

In addition to cookies and IP addresses, browser and device data are also collected in a process known as fingerprinting, all in order to track users online. Using the EXPERTE.com Privacy Check, you can ascertain which tracks you're leaving online.

An adblocker can protect against tracking.

To protect against cookie-based tracking, a number of other best practices and methods exist. For one, it's a good idea not to mindlessly accept tracking when a pop-up requests your consent. Another prudent step is to log out from online banking, social media, or other personal websites when you've finished with them. Finally, you can use ad blockers to keep the most annoying cookies at arm's length. For more insight into just how effective these are against tracking, be sure to check out our comprehensive EXPERTE.com ad blocker comparison.

Unfortunately, deleting cookies and exercising care when using the Internet aren't enough to protect against the most persistent and dangerous types of tracking. For that, you'll need to conceal your identity using tools like proxies, the TOR browser, or VPNs. To find out how to safely and anonymously surf the Internet, we've put together a guide.

Spam

The mass sending of unwanted or unsolicited emails, accounting for the majority of emails sent online, is known as spam. In addition to email-based spam, other channels have also come into vogue, including social media, SMS, and messenger services.

Typically, spam advertises dubious financial products, dating offers, or wonder cures, like diet pills. Most of the time these are ads, however, rarely, if ever, are the associated products or services capable of doing what they proclaim to. Spam is annoying, clogs inboxes, and requires the usage of a spam filter. In some cases, spam emails can even be dangerous, such as when they are actually concerned with phishing or spreading malware.

Most of the time (but not always), spam and phishing emails are easy to recognize.

Spam isn't always easy to recognize. If an email looks suspicious to you, we recommend paying attention to its sender and the message's content. Most of the time, spam emails advertise dubious products, using email addresses comprised of random numbers and letters. Often, their text will contain grammatical errors or have odd sentence structures since their originators are (nearly always) not English native speakers.

A number of email providers automatically filter spam messages out of your inbox to a separate folder. These become more effective whenever you receive a spam message to your inbox and mark it as such. To ensure that your inbox remains as spam-free as possible, it's advisable to use your main email address only when signing up for reputable services. For browser games or online fora, it's a good idea to create a throwaway or secondary email address.

Sending spam is prohibited, and only companies that have received explicit permission to engage in advertising are permitted to send such messages. Should fraud or malicious activity be part of the message, it can even be criminally prosecuted.

Some websites sell lists of email addresses to spammers. Generally speaking, it's always a good idea to keep your operating system and browser up-to-date and to make sure that the latest security updates are installed.

Data Leaks

Even if you've adopted the best security measures and handle your personal data carefully, it's extremely difficult to protect against all dangers lurking online. The most frustrating of these is without a doubt, data leaks.

Data leaks refer to the unintended mass release of personal data, passwords, and email addresses registered on a reputable site or service. They are caused either by incompetence (on the part of the site or service), or a targeted attack from cybercriminals. To see whether your email address has been compromised, we recommend using haveibeenpwned.com. This will show whether any accounts associated with the email address you enter have been part of data leaks in the past.

The information which goes public in the aftermath of a data leak is often used by criminals to gain access to your accounts or engage in identity theft. Stolen email addresses often become targets for spam campaigns and other unsolicited emails.

Sites like haveibeenpwnd.com help to find out whether you've been impacted by any data leaks.

Should you determine that your data has been compromised in a leak, the first step is to change any passwords associated with those accounts as swiftly as possible. This is advisable not only for the website or service in question but any other account that uses the same password. Password managers make it easy to safely and conveniently manage sensitive data by automatically creating strong, unique passwords for each service. To find out which solution is best for you and your needs, head over to our comprehensive EXPERTE.com password manager evaluation.

For additional information, we've also written an article on data leaks and potential countermeasures.

Doxing

While its roots can be traced back to digital pranks in the 80s, doxing has mutated into one of the most troubling aspects of the Internet in the interim. Doxing refers to the undesired publication of private or sensitive data, such as personal addresses, telephone numbers, legal names, or even, compromising pictures. Most of the time, the goal is to silence or intimidate the victim, however, some only realize that they've been doxed after their data has been publicized and the figurative cat is out of the bag. The practice is often part of cyberbullying and just one of several approaches that ill-doers can take when looking to inflict harm.

Some doxing attacks entail hacking in order to gain access to personal data, although less technically skilled doxers will simply scour the web or social networks for personal information.

Doxers use social networks to collect personal/private information.

To make yourself as hard a target as possible, it's important to keep your software up to date. In this way, you'll be better protected against hacking. It's also advisable to be cautious when opening suspicious emails or messages, to regularly change your passwords, and to encrypt your hard drive.

Something else to keep in mind: Data that has been published online is difficult to remove. For that reason, be careful about what information you share online.

To stay better informed about doxing and what you can do to prevent it, we've put together a comprehensive article.

Identity Theft

Without warning, you receive an invoice for thousands of dollars from a website or service that you don't remember purchasing anything on. And you've never heard of any of the items or even seen them. You've likely been the latest victim of identity theft!

Identity theft has existed for a long time, but in its digital version, cybercriminals use personal data to make purchases online, or as a 'cover' for illegal activity. Typically, criminals manipulate personal data in one of two ways: Either to create fake social media or online shopping accounts or to co-opt your existing accounts by cracking your password. Both can have uncomfortable consequences and are criminally prosecuted.

As in most of the other threats we've noted, strong passwords and up-to-date software are two of the best defenses against identity theft. Exercise extra caution when using public WLAN and encrypt your traffic. Should you notice any suspicious activity, such as charges to your credit or debit card that you didn't make (even for small sums), immediately follow up on these with your provider or bank.

In the event that you've already been the victim of identity theft, report it to the police. Beyond that, you should also tell your friends and acquaintances since fraudsters will often attempt to co-opt networks of family members and friends in order to extract as many gains as possible. You should also dispute any charges that you didn't make. In most cases, legal assistance or advice can come in extremely handy. You can find out more about identity theft and its consequences in our article on the subject.

Phishing

Phishing is a portmanteau comprised of "password" and "fishing", and denotes criminal activity aimed at acquiring passwords and personal data through fake websites, emails, or text messages. On many occasions, these have the appearance of legitimate communications from reputable companies, services, or banks, however, if you share your passwords or bank data, criminals will take advantage of these to ransack your account.

Spear-phishing and whaling are two specialized forms of phishing. The first targets specific victims, writing to them with well-researched communiques, in order to improve the likelihood of success. Whaling, in turn, goes after the leadership of a company or organization in the hopes of eliciting large sums of money.

Phishing can vary in complexity and quality; the above message looks the part, but upon closer inspection, contains a number of errors.

As with all Internet-based threats, it's important to stay on your guard. For that reason, pay attention to the lack of a personalized address (i.e. "Dear Ms./Mrs." instead of "Dear Mrs. Smith"), grammatical or spelling mistakes, or suspicious attachments. Reputable companies and organizations will never ask you via email, SMS, social media, or telephone for your passwords or other sensitive data.

To reduce your susceptibility to phishing, it's also advisable to keep your software and drivers up to date. Modern browsers do a much better job of recognizing secure websites, and warning users when they are about to enter a dubious one.

Malware

Whether a virus, Trojan, spyware, or ransomware, malware remains the most dangerous threat lurking on the Internet. Depending on its type, malware infects your computer and goes to work wreaking havoc, with consequences ranging from performance issues to data surveillance, to outright data theft. The most costly form of malware is undoubtedly ransomware, which, as its name suggests, forces its victims to pay a ransom in order to regain access to their files or the content of their hard drives. Most law enforcement and cybersecurity agencies recommend never paying up.

Our article on the subject offers a more detailed overview of the various kinds of malware out there and what you can do against them.

Ransomware is brazen and unnerving, demanding payment in exchange for restoring access to your files or data.

Should you suspect that your system is infected with malware, we recommend immediately taking countermeasures, since the longer such software is on your computer, the more damage it can do. To that end, we've put together a guide on how to efficiently and completely remove malware.

To prevent malware from getting onto your system in the first place, it's essential to adopt some proactive measures. As recommended time and again above, keep your software and drivers up to date, since security updates close exploits that viruses use to gain access to your system. Antivirus software is also a must, and to find out which best meets your needs (as well as what each has to offer) we recommend perusing our comprehensive review and comparison of 12 of the leading providers.

Conclusion

The Internet is a wonderful place, but certainly not without dangers. Cybercriminals have grown adept at gaining access to personal information, passwords, and banking data, so it's important to always be vigilant. Still, total security is not possible, since data leaks can lay bare even the most difficult passwords, or doxing can see your otherwise secure data hacked.

Nevertheless, with a mix of prudence, common sense, up-to-date software and drivers, and, in some cases, antivirus solutions, it's possible to greatly reduce the likelihood of falling victim to such attacks. To that end, we recommend reading through our reviews of the leading IT security solutions and trying out our in-house tools. We're confident that these will boost your digital defenses!

Author: Thomas Köhler
Thomas Köhler studied German and history and is currently pursuing a master's degree in public history at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. As a freelance author, he writes mainly about data protection, IT security and software.
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