Online Safety and Security to Help Keep Students Safe

Internet safety is something that demands all of our attention. While young children may be the most vulnerable and easily victimized, those who are older and wiser also have a lot at stake. College students are often seen as tasty targets for scammers who use tested methods for tricking students. Since they are often on their own for the first time, college students may be open to certain manipulative methods that seek to separate them from their money, privacy, and security.

Why College Students Need to Stay Safe When Online?

Not only are finances at stake, but your personal reputation, integrity, and privacy are also on the line. College students can be harassed, bullied, and stalked and they are the most vulnerable to non-consensual image sharing. Private photos might be leaked out in the name of revenge or a sexy text message from a boozy Friday night might leak out. Further, college students are often the target of common thieves who seek to take phones and computers in the hopes of also mining your sensitive data.

Safety Issues

Stalking and Harassment

Unfortunately, not everyone on social media has a pro-social agenda. Your next post could incite a stalker to endlessly harass you or worse. Keep yourself safe on the internet and social media by posting mindfully and paying special attention to privacy settings.

First off, take a moment before you post anything. Consider how the post is likely to be received by your friends and the wider world. You can often rephrase a comment so that its tone is muted, but its point is still strong. Further, check to see if others have said the same thing. There's no need to spark someone's ire if you're not adding a new idea to the conversation.

You can also check your privacy settings to ensure maximum safety. For instance, you can hide personal information from casual browsers, make your posts private to your friends only, and hide your friends list from non-friends. Facebook can even restrict your friends list to only mutual friends. This might not directly impact your safety, but if you encourage this behavior you may stymie a would-be stalker from mining a target from your friends list.


It may seem surprising, but most fraud is perpetrated by people close to the victim. If you're in college, there's a good chance that you're meeting a lot of new people all the time. While you don't want to be overly cautious, you should make sure that your personal information is safe and secure. If you keep lists of passwords, consider storing them and any other sensitive documents in a locked safe or inexpensive cash box.

On similar lines, consider using passwords that are not connected to your interests, birthday, or parent’s names. If a fraudster is looking to hack your accounts, its amazingly simple for them to discover little bits of information that might be clues to a password. Thus, create passwords from randomly selected numbers and letters. They may seem difficult to remember at first, but after a few uses they'll be embedded in your memory.

Device Theft

Don't make your phone, laptop, or tablet low-hanging fruit for thieves. Keep these items on your person or in a secure, locked area. You can also use laptop locks. Be aware that thieves could still find a way to take your property.

Though a thief can still abscond with your physical devices, he doesn't have to get your personal data. Make sure your devices are all protected with difficult passwords or fingerprint scans. Often you can set up extra security on a laptop by creating a password to the computer's BIOS, and most operating systems have password protection.

Your mobile devices are often trackable through either Google or Apple tracking. This may help you find the thief or allow you to discover that you misplaced your phone after all. However, if you're uncertain whether or not you can retrieve the devices, tracking services will also often allow you to wipe its memory.

If your laptop is stolen, you might not be able to protect your data so easily. However, do make sure that you back up all your most important documents to a cloud service. External hard drives and thumb drives are also handy, but they can also be stolen, lost, and are subject to crashes and data loss.

Infected Devices

Hackers have many nefarious means for accessing your personal information. One method is to infect a USB drive with malware and then leave it where it can be found. That way, if you decide to plug the device into your computer and click on its files, either as a good Samaritan intending to return the device or simply out of curiosity, you inadvertently download a trojan or other malware onto your device, making you vulnerable to cyber-attack.

This problem is not exclusive to creative hackers. In fact, if you are sharing a USB drive with a classmate, the drive may become infected and then pose a threat to both of your computers. To avoid this issue while ensuring that your group projects proceed with the usual efficiency and excellence, consider sharing documents over Google Docs or some other cloud-based system. If you make this a habit, you can also avoid cross-platform compatibility issues, if any.

Phishing Attacks

As a college student you're likely getting many official emails from the school administration, your apartment or dorm, and your professors, too. However, official-sounding emails, phone calls, and even physical mail can be fabricated. Such fraudulent messages are part of a larger group of scams called phishing scams and have been known to trick the likes of top politicians and business-people, too. These scams are also pervasive on social media.

To protect yourself from fraudulent correspondence, always double-check the source. If an email asks you to click a link, verify the origin of that message. First, you can scrutinize the message to look for any indication that it is counterfeit. Poor logo reproductions or even using the wrong name in a signature field can be good indicators that you should beware. You should also inspect the email address. Most email readers display a user name, but you can also reveal the email address. Phony email addresses often seem valid until you notice the domain is .net or .com where you should see .edu.

On social media, many fall prey to what is commonly called clickbait. While often innocuous, clickbait uses an inflammatory headline or other content to encourage your engagement. Another problem on social media are fake accounts that ask your friendship, but which are seeking to mine your profile for any pertinent personal information, as well as your list of friends. Sometimes these fake accounts purport to offer real friendship but be wary of any internet personality who asks for money before you know anything about them.

Non-consensual Image Sharing

Intimate relationships in the digital age can sometimes include photos or other files of an indiscreet nature. Steamy texts and emails can be a fun part of a romance, but they can also come back to haunt you. Sometimes exes may become angry when the relationship doesn’t end well and they seek revenge by posting these pictures, videos, or messages online. Even strangers can obtain sensitive photos from your phone or hard drive and put your privacy in jeopardy.

While high-profile people often have more need to worry about paparazzi sneaking a photo while they are in a compromising position, someone might also take your photo without your permission. They might access your files and copy them for later blackmail or malicious embarrassment. Further, college is a time when sometimes parties get a little wild. If someone has a camera at a particularly unfortunate time, you might find yourself and your privacy compromised.

Consider that, according to Data & Society, a full 10% of women have been threatened with public exposure. The incidence of such threats is the highest between the ages of 15-29, covering high school through graduate school, for traditional students. The good news is that most of these threats are never realized. Nevertheless, 5% of internet users ages 18-29 have been the victim of non-consensual image sharing. You should always take serious precautions when considering sharing personal images of this type with anyone.

Unsecured Public Wi-Fi

The free, non-password-protected Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop might make it easy to study or send your parents a long-overdue email but be wary of exposing your sensitive information to hackers. These unsecured networks can be an excellent trolling ground for malicious hackers. Believe it or not, there may be people searching the network and accessing your computer through this seemingly innocuous portal.

One of the best ways to avoid this issue is to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, which will eliminate the dangers of using public Wi-Fi by encrypting any information you send. Barring that, you can make sure that you never transmit any sensitive information while using an unsecured, public network. The best way to do this is to avoid logging into your bank account, accessing any private information, or making any purchases while on an unsecured network.

Additionally, note that, not only is Wi-Fi a potential point of entry for a bad guy, but so is Bluetooth. Make it a practice to turn off your Bluetooth connectivity when you leave the house or aren't otherwise using that technology.

Safety Habits

Be Aware of What You Put on Social Media

Your social media activity can come back to haunt you. Future employers, friends, and others are sure to seek out your profiles to get a sense of who you are. More pressing, certain posts might trigger a potential stalker or harassment issue.

One good rule of thumb comes from the world of writing: revise. Take a moment before hitting send to look at what you're putting on a global, public message board. Consider if you're projecting an image that you want people to see of you. Once you've made your assessment, you can make changes or erase the message altogether.

Change Your Passwords

It's a good practice to change your passwords on a regular basis. It's also advised to not use the same password for every website. If a hacker manages to get one of your passwords, he's likely to see if it works on other sites. When you take the extra measure of changing your passwords on a regular basis, hackers will soon move on to someone else who uses their mother’s maiden name for their bitcoin accounts.

Don’t Download Free Content

If it's free, it's too good to be true. While some sites offer legitimate content for free, many embed malware in that free content. Further, even people who offer content on good faith might have themselves been hacked, thus compromising the content. Your rule of thumb should be to avoid free content until there is some guarantee of safety. As always, consider your sources. Just as your college won't accept papers sourced entirely from Wikipedia, so you should not accept free downloadable content from untrustworthy sites.

Don’t Store Payment Info on Websites or in Browsers

Sensitive password or payment information have no business anywhere but in your brain or written on a piece of paper, stored in a secure location. You should especially make sure to secure your credit card information. If you allow your browser to store your passwords, make sure that your computer is always secured. Note that Firefox allows you to set a master password that you enter for every session. Still, if you are in public and must leave your machine unprotected for a moment, be sure to close Firefox.

Software and Safety Options

Credit Monitoring

If you are concerned that someone may have obtained your identity, it can be worthwhile to check your credit report to see if there are any debts of unknown origin on your record. Try to only do this in special circumstances, though. If you check your credit too often, credit ratings companies could see this as a negative and lower your score. There's no need to miss out on a mortgage or auto loan in the name of excessive diligence. Also, certain credit cards or banks give you unfettered access to your credit score in a way that will not affect your rating. If you’re interested in this, you should find a company that offers this perk.

Additional Resources for Credit Monitoring:

System Backups

It's always a good idea to back up your work. Just as you save documents while you work on them, it's a best practice to secure your files on a cloud system. You can also use an extra piece of hardware such as an external hard drive. In fact, many people save their files in a local piece of hardware as well as a cloud service. Many cloud services, such as Google Drive, offer generous free storage.

Additional Resources for System Backups:

Virus Protection

If you often use unsecured networks, trade thumb-drives with friends, or download fun, free stuff on the internet, you need virus protection. Find a virus protection package that is regularly updated, and which won't dent your bank account. It's a good practice to start using a virus protection package as an undergraduate since some graduate schools, such as medical school, insist on a strict cyber security protocol. Once you install the anti-virus package, make sure to run scans of your system on a regular basis and always let it update when needed.

Additional Resources for Virus Protection:

Tips for Keeping Your Data Safe

  • Don’t use Public Computers for Personal Information:

    Public computers are always a target for hackers and malware that can steal your personal information. Only use a public computer for non-personal activities such as checking the news and doing research. Always avoid sending passwords from public computers.

  • Enable the “Find My iPhone” app or the equivalent on your device so that you can always find it, whether it was misplaced or stolen:

    If you ever lose or misplace your cellphone or other mobile device, tracking software will come in handy. Once you can access your account from another device, you will be able to track the device to its last known location. If you feel that the device is not recoverable, these software packages often allow you to have the device delete all information stored on the device. Though the thief, or whomever finds the device, will still have your hardware, they will not be able to access your information.

  • Use strong passwords – and don’t reuse the same one:

    For every website, use a string of eight letters, numbers, and/or acceptable symbols for your password. Try to use the most random collection possible so that even your best friend won't be able to guess the password. More importantly, don't use even the strongest password for more than one site or account. This is because, if a hacker figures out one of your passwords, he's likely to try it, or close variations, on your other accounts.

  • Use two-factor authentication:

    This can be a two-tier system whereby you enter your strong password and then answer a question. Other systems ask that you check that you're not a robot, or have you respond to a visual. There are also systems that verify your ID by sending a code to your cellphone via text message. You then enter the code to access your account.

  • Keep an eye on your accounts:

    If you use online banking, as so many of us do these days, it’s important to monitor your balance. If things seem askew, check your transaction history and ensure that nobody has accessed your funds. This goes for your credit cards, stock accounts, and cryptocurrencies.

  • Be aware of scams:

    By the time a scam becomes known in the media it's probably already on the wane. However, be aware of the sorts of scams that raise such widespread attention. There are bound to be copycats. For instance, there are dating scams targeting college-aged young people. Be careful when a potential match asks too many questions too soon, refuses to meet in person, or asks for money.

  • Use those privacy settings:

    Social media privacy settings are a necessity. You don't want to share all your personal information with the world, so evaluate your privacy options and make the choices that are best for you. Note that social media not only involves you, but your actions can have repercussions for others. A public list of friends can open your pals up to potential cyber threats as well.

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