You’ve already learned a million safety tips from your parents and teachers. Locking your doors, avoiding strange areas, and carrying a cell phone are all great ways to ensure your physical well-being. But as the college experience becomes increasingly electronic, today’s students must protect themselves from the equally serious risk of digital information falling into the wrong hands. Here are five ways to safely exchange information on the Internet.
1. Research before you register. Social networking is a fantastic tool for expanding your circle of friends and professional contacts, but different sites offer different levels of protection. Before joining any online community, find out if the host site offers settings that will allow you to control who can view your profile.
2. Discriminate. Hackers and identity thieves can only access the information you provide over the Web. Stick to online activity that doesn’t require your full name or contact information, and use a trusted site like PayPal.com to facilitate all online purchases. Always be skeptical of a site that asks for your e-mail, credit card number, or home address.
3. Think before typing. Whether you’re creating a screen name for a chat room, leaving a MySpace comment for a friend, or even instant messaging with a parent, avoid mentioning any information that a third party could use to locate you—your school name, favorite hangout spot, and the make/model of your car are all examples of things not to discuss online.
4. Require ID. Unfortunately, befriending strangers on the Web can be just as dangerous as in real life—if not more so, since you have no way of verifying their identity. As a rule of thumb, stick to messaging with people you actually know, and never agree to meet in person with someone who found you online.
5. Trust your gut. If you encounter a situation that feels uncomfortable or wrong, there’s a good chance that something’s up. Any time you feel threatened by a person or situation on the Web, don’t hesitate to report it to your parents, the police, or site administrators—it could save you or someone else from being victimized.
They call it the World Wide Web for a reason—the Internet connects us to one another with unprecedented speed, with which comes a fair amount of responsibility. By staying alert and adopting simple safety strategies, you can ensure that your online experience is an enjoyable one.