If you're an online student, your computer is your lifeline to your coursework. So you must be vigilant to prevent it from being hacked.

If you're enrolled in an online degree program edging closer each term to earning your college degree, then you might want to offer a nod of thanks to Sir Tim Berners-Lee.


For all of you trivia buffs, he's the British computer scientist who created the World Wide Web, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of his invention. His brainchild made the Internet truly accessible and useful, changing the world, including how people teach and learn.

As a result, students such as you have the opportunity to earn your degree on your own time, from the comfort of your own home.

The Web is a powerful communications medium. But just as you snap on a seat belt in your car or on an airplane before taking a trip, you need to take precautions while traveling online to keep your computer protected.

Keep your seatbelt secure at all times.

According to Dr. Michael Moorman, computer science professor at Saint Leo University, a simple action such as opening an innocuous-looking e-mail could enable a hacker to gain control of your computer.

"Your hard drive can be wiped clean before you can do a thing to stop it," says Moorman. "But there are lots of things that can prevent someone from entering your system and stealing your data."

 Here are a few safety fundamentals.

1. Install an antivirus program and keep it up to date.

You must have anti-virus protection software on your computer. Install and update your security software and set it to scan regularly.

This includes keeping your software up-to-date. Enable automatic updates in both Windows and applications, which usually provide fixes to any software vulnerabilities and prevent infection.

Many vendors offer free computer security checks for your computer. You can visit Go Stay Safe Online from the National Cyber Security Alliance for a list of free security check-ups.

2. Activate the firewall on your computer. Keep it at least "medium" security or higher.

A firewall is a barrier – hardware, such as a router, or software – between your computer and the network. It allows only certain types of data across to protect your computer from malicious traffic. Keep in mind that it can't protect your computer from threats that you invite onto your computer yourself by clicking on e-mail, attachments and downloads – or a friend's infected thumb drive.

3. Create strong passwords.

You want a password you can remember, but more importantly, you need a cryptic password that will stump a potential hacker. Microsoft offers a great tool for gauging the strength of your password, as well as tips for creating strong passwords. Never use real words or personal information, and use different passwords for different uses.

4. Don't share personal information.

Don't give out your password or user name. In fact, don't share any personal information at all with someone you don't know well. If, by accident, you do, change the password to something new as soon as possible.

5. Back up early and often.

Keep valuable and sensitive information backed up to an external hard drive that can be disconnected from your computer. If your computer is ever hacked, you'll have a copy to recover your most important files.

6. Beware of phishing.

When people with bad intentions try to 'reel in' your private information with innocuous-looking email or links, it's called phishing.

According to Moorman, the best way to avoid being scammed is to maintain an attitude of healthy skepticism: always stop and think before you click.

  • Never open strange-looking or unsolicited e-mail or attachments. If you can't verify that it is safe, delete it.
  • Click on links only from trusted sources.
  • If you're on a website and a pop-up asks if it's okay to install some software, if you've never heard of it before, don't do it!
  • Be especially careful about what you do over wireless networks because most public access wireless is unencrypted. Set your laptop to 'ask' before joining networks, so you don't inadvertently connect to insecure wireless networks.
  • If you do click on something you shouldn't have and fear you may have been hacked, unplug your computer immediately.

Moorman offers the following example of a phishing attempt made on his computer.

"I recently received an e-mail supposedly from American Express telling me that there was a problem with my account," says Moorman. "They wanted me to download an attached file to my desktop and then run it.

"My first clue that this was hoax is that I don't have an American Express card or account. The second clue was the source address: jjones@email.americanexpress.com. Why would AmEx be using an e-mail.xxx.com address? Third clue – you never download something to your desktop and then run it. That's a never, never, no-no!"

Saint Leo University's new master's degree program in cybersecurity is now available on-ground at University Campus and will be offered totally online beginning in March 2015.

Image Credit:
Kletr on Shutterstock

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