The Internet population is diverse. Some people’s activities are driven by the need to improve lives. Other people, probably the majority, go online to harmlessly pursue personal interests. Then there are those that have malicious intentions. They include cybercriminals, hackers, malware developers, and spammers, all of whom engage in harmful and illegal activities for profit and other nefarious reasons. In this article, we look into ways of protecting yourself from this last category of Internet users.

The Internet is not inherently evil—only some users are

As is the case in the real world, the online environment is rife with all manner of threats, including viruses, identity theft, DDoS attacks, copyright infringement, ransomware attacks, and phishing attacks, among others. Of all online hazards and threats, scams are considered by many to be the most harmful. They employ tools and strategies aimed at stealing your resources—money, in most cases. Internet users unwittingly click the wrong link or respond to an email/SMS/call only to have their online security compromised by scammers.

Scammers’ primary strategies include the use of fake websites and spam emails to dupe Internet users into believing that they are dealing with legitimate organizations. They engage naïve and gullible people online and eventually trick them into providing sensitive personal and financial information.

Therefore, it is imperative that you learn how to recognize email scams and fake websites to avoid being one of the numerous people who unwittingly give away their usernames, passwords, credit card information, and other personal and financial information. The strategies used by cybercriminals and hackers can be extremely persuasive and work primarily by appealing to people’s emotions. Thankfully, you’re not completely defenseless because there are some measure you can take to stay safe.

Phishing: fake websites and email scams

Phishing refers to online activities in which scammers use fake websites and scam emails to impersonate legitimate organizations for the purpose of tricking Internet users into giving away their sensitive personal and financial information which the scammers then use to further engage in fraudulent activities. The fake websites and scam emails have content that is used to persuade people to participate in seemingly good activities such as lucrative investments and philanthropic pursuits through well-established international organizations.

As the Internet evolves, so too do online scammers and their strategies for engaging in fraud. They are constantly innovating new ideas of fleecing people. Clicking on unknown links and responding to dubious calls and messages opens you up to the risk of becoming a victim of phishing. Other tools used by online scammers include Trojans and other malware that infect your device and steal your information. Needless to say, extreme caution is advised whenever you undertake financial activities online.

Below are some tips for recognizing the fake websites and email scams.

  • Incorrect URLs. In an effort to trick people, scammers use fake URLs that are as similar as possible in spelling to the URLs of the well-established organizations they are attempting to impersonate. It is, therefore, worth noting the URL of the financial organizations you use online, including your bank, PayPal, etc. so that when you see a different one, it can raise your suspicion.
  • Scammers ask for banking information. This should be a no-brainer, yet many people fall for it. Why would your bank need you to provide it with information such as your credit card number or ATM PIN? They have all that information and more in their system so they don’t need you to share it every time you access your account online.
  • Scammers use Gmail and other public email accounts to communicate with you. Don’t respond to emails claiming to be from reputable organizations if they’re coming from a public email address such as Gmail. Well-established organizations use highly secure corporate email accounts for internal and external communication. Additionally, be wary of emails that don’t contain your full name.
  • Scam emails tend to have grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Respectable institutions keen to maintain a strong reputation are unlikely to send you an email littered with errors in grammar and spelling.
  • The URLs are not secure. Well-established organizations typically have websites which use the secure HTTPS (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure) protocol. Even if a website belongs to the actual financial institution, it is strongly recommended that you avoid making any payments on it if it doesn’t use the HTTPS protocol to encrypt your information, because anyone online can see the information.
  • The images on the website are usually low-resolution. Fake websites are usually built in a hurry and little effort goes into developing a great user experience through high-resolution images. Low-resolution images should, therefore, raise your suspicion.

In addition to the above, here are some signs that an email you have received is a scam:

  • The email address is different from that of the organization
  • The email threatens to close your account unless you take immediate action
  • The email contains low-resolution images
  • The email address is from free, non-corporate email services such as Gmail
  • The email doesn’t contain your full name or used “Dear client” in its place
  • The email is filled with spelling and grammar errors

Protecting yourself from fake websites and scam emails

Some of the ways in which you can stay safe from phishing attacks include the following.

  1. Stay informed regarding the latest strategies used by online scammers.
  2. Use common sense while online. Don’t act mindlessly. Use critical thinking and ask questions: Why would a reputable website need you to provide information it should already have in its database? Why does the email contain so many grammatical and spelling mistakes? Why isn’t the website HTTPS-secured?
  3. Avoid clicking unknown links and responding to dubious calls and messages.
  4. Protect your logins using strong, unique passwords for all your important accounts and use two-factor authentication where it is provided.
  5. Use powerful security tools (antimalware, VPNs, etc.)

It is important that we elaborate on the last measure as it may be the most important and effective one when it comes to protecting yourself from online fraudsters and other threats. A VPN encrypts your online data and passes it through a remote VPN server, making it virtually impossible for others to see the content of your online traffic and your actual IP address. A VPN, therefore, hides your online activity and location. All this makes you a difficult target for scammers and they’re likely to move on to other users because they primarily target the most vulnerable users.

Choosing the best VPN to protect yourself against phishing

There are hundreds of VPN services on the market, so choosing the most suitable one for you can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The most effective strategy for getting a VPN that will serve you best is identifying one that matches your personal needs.

Start by figuring out what you’re looking for. When it comes to undertaking your financial activities online, security takes priority. In this case, give preference to VPNs that use the most powerful encryption standard, even if this means that your Internet connection might be slightly slower. Benefits such as unblocking streaming services and the ability to stream HD content are nice, but they’re an added benefit.

Next, compare a number of VPN services rather than going for the first one you come across. Comprehensively researching and testing the abilities of VPNs requires expertise and equipment that you may not have. Thankfully, our experts have done the job for you and have come up with numerous reviews of VPNs based on a user’s specific needs, and the VPN’s specific purposes.

It’s preferable if the VPN you consider provides native apps for all major device platforms (Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS and Linux) so that you’re not limited to certain devices. Furthermore, you want VPN apps that are highly intuitive and visually appealing to maximize your user experience.

Needless to say, you should go for a VPN service that fits your budget. Keep in mind, though, that VPNs are security services and, as such, it is imperative that you consider them an investment that you should not skimp on. Going for cheap or free VPN services may be counterproductive as they typically offer substandard services. In many cases, they actually expose you to more risk, which beats the purpose of using them. You’re better of using highly reputable premium VPNs.

Other factors to consider are customer services, free trials and refund policies. Ideally, your VPN service should offer 24/7 live chat customer support to provide assistance in case you run into any problems. Likewise, free trials and money-back guarantees give you a chance to test the service at no risk. Many well-established providers usually offer one or the other, or both in some cases.