12 Simple Online Privacy Hacks For Avoiding Spammers, Scammers And Identity Theft

Privacy leaks on the internet aren't just for the Pentagon, guys; if you're not sensible about how you protect your personal data, you could be leaving yourself at risk for identity theft, credit card fraud, tricky little malware infections on your computer, and a host of other online nasties. That might sound paranoid – but you may be surprised to realize just how much the sites you commonly visit know about you. Many sites, from Google to Facebook, can collect your personal data and then sell it to other companies; if you use a free service, chances are that the company is funding itself by selling your personal information. But if you feel this violates your right to privacy (and the law is a little up in the air), how can you keep yourself protected? It's easy – it's just a matter of knowing what you need to do. With a few simple steps (plus some basic online safety awareness), you can help you keep your identity, data, location and bank details secret.

So if you've been shying away from beefing up your online security because of you think you're not tech savvy enough, don't worry. The 12 basic tips below don't require vast technical knowledge; they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to living a safer digital life.

1. Don't Give Out Information About Yourself Online

This seems like a complete no-brainer — but make sure you know exactly who you're talking to when you reveal personal information about your identity, location, age or anything else online. Identity theft is a rising problem, so keep your actual personal details to yourself unless you're on a trusted site that requires the truth (like your bank).

2. Run Anti-Spyware/Malware Programs Religiously

You probably got this rundown with your antivirus software, but it's worth revisiting. Spyware is software uploaded (usually unknowingly) to your computer that tracks your activity online, and then broadcasts what it's learned to a third party. Spyware can be encoded in suspect websites, in software downloads and even in spam emails.

Even if you think you've got an impenetrable defense and never open any email attachments from senders that you don't recognize, you should still run anti-spyware programs like BitDefender or AVG AntiVirus regularly to sweep them out. (Note: some spyware can disable the antivirus programs that come with your computer or browser, so don't just rely on them.)

3. Block Social Media Sites From Tracking You Online

If you're not OK with the idea of sites eavesdropping on you online – and up to 51% of us aren't, because we would like to, say, talk about our real feelings about a company's services without them listening in and making a note of it – install a privacy program like Disconnect. This program, created by an ex-Google engineer, allows you to keep your searches private, and masks your IP address to prevent hackers from finding your computer. It also routes all your internet traffic through an encryption server, and shows you every website's attempts to track what you do.

4. Only Submit Your Credit Card Information On A Secure Site

That doesn't mean that you have to stop paying for things online – just make sure to only ever reveal your credit card details on a secure site. "Secure" means that it has been authenticated as genuine, and that only you and the website can see the data you're entering; nobody can listen in.

You'll know when you're on one because the site will usually say they're transferring you to their "secure payment site" – the address will start with "https," and there will be a small padlock in your browser address line. If that doesn't pop up, don't put your credit card details anywhere near it; without a secure site, your info could be going anywhere, and you might soon discover you've got an empty bank account.

5. Make Your Passwords Uncrackable

Keeping your passwords memorable as well as uncrackable can sometimes seem completely impossible. Password specialists recommend that you use a unique 16-letter password for every single service you use. But who can memorize several strings of unconnected letters and numbers, particularly if you aren't supposed to write them down? Luckily, there are numerous strategies that can help you here. One is using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, which only require you to remember one master password for all your various accounts.

Another strategy is encrypting a memorable phrase into a sentence ("I really want to see Britney Spears in Vegas in 2015" becomes "IrwtsBSiVi215," for instance); and a third is using a random password generator, which gives you a collection of letters and numbers with nothing in common at all. It's harder for hackers to guess a password that doesn't make sense.

6. Use A Default Search Engine That Doesn't Remember You

If Google's capacity to remember something you searched for once in 2008 and autocomplete it now freaks you out, DuckDuckGo might be for you. It's a search engine that prioritizes user privacy and doesn't harvest any of your data. That means it won't autocomplete anything or filter search results by your location, because it doesn't know where on earth you are.

7. Control Cookies And Javascript

Cookies — little bits of code that track your use of a site, so that its owners can see how it's being used — are fortunately quite easy to eliminate from your browsing experience. Your browser probably has an inbuilt ability to block cookies, so make sure you turn it on. But being wary of Javascript — the coding language that helps us interact with a lot of websites — is wise too; hackers often utilize Javascript to send out malware attacks on vulnerable computers. A good option for controlling this one on Firefox is NoScript, which allows you to choose whether or not to run Javascript whenever a website using it pops up – so you can keep yourself safe, but if you really want to watch that Flash video, you can.

8. Avoid Broadcasting Your Location By Using A Proxy Server Or A VPN

Your computer's IP address reveals exactly where you are. If you're not particularly keen on giving this information out, consider routing your internet traffic through a different location – a proxy server located in a different country, say, or a VPN (virtual private network), which keeps your browsing private on a secure connection. Bonus: it'll make you feel like James Bond.

9. Wipe All Your Stuff Before You Throw It Out

You'd be surprised at what information people can retrieve from your busted old laptops and phones. Even if it's completely useless and filled with all your Livejournal entries from 2007, make sure to completely and utterly wipe your hard drive before you throw it out or recycle it.

10. Encrypt Your Emails

Don't want anybody to be able to read your private email, and don't want to switch to a secure email service like Hushmail, which has built-in encryption? Try using an encryption service on top of the mail server you've already got. Options include Mailvelope, which virtually "envelops" your email so it can't be read (clever), and the Gmail-specific SecureGmail.

11. Consider Having A Second Or Disposable Email Address

If you like to sign up for contests and mailing lists, but have no interest in clogging your inbox with identity-stealing spam, consider having a separate identity — at least as far as email addresses are concerned. A lot of people now have a dedicated second email address for their "unofficial" internet browsing, but another good option is using a disposable email address (DEA) when you need an email address for one throwaway occasion. But no personal stuff on these accounts, please: they may be temporary, but you should still only fill them with lies.

12. Install HTTPS Everywhere

Remember earlier, when I talked about "https" being the sign of a secure payment website? There's now software that makes every major website into an https site. HTTPS Everywhere is an extension for Firefox, Chrome and Opera, and it applies the same level of security to your everyday browsing that you get at bank sites or other hyper-secure ones. That means your data is kept confidential and encrypted. Sounds pretty good to us.

Images: tinto/Flickr; Giphy (6), Disconnect, LastPass, DuckDuckGo, NoScript, SecureGmail, HTTPS Everywhere