It is very convenient to use a computer at the library or an Internet cafe, or to log onto your e-mail from your friend's house. However when you use someone else's computer, you are at the mercy of their security settings and any viruses or other malware that has been downloaded. There are also great benefits from mobile phones, but today they are essentially mini-computers and so carry their own set of risks. Using some simple precautions will make computing on the go a safer experience

Using public computers safely

Logging in to public computers at libraries, Internet cafés, a friend’s home, or any other location is a very good way to check e-mail and stay connected.  However, before you use a computer that isn’t your own, consider taking four safety precautions:

  • Find out if the computer is protected from viruses and various forms of malware.  Is there a firewall in place? If the computer is not well protected, it’s likely to be infected with malicious programs, some of which could grab your information including passwords, address book, or personally identifiable information. The safe choice is to assume the computer is infected and be cautious about the information you reveal.
  • Erase your tracks. Here are some tips to foil thieves who may use the computer after you and try to follow your trail.
    • Make sure your account doesn’t automatically save your password and user ID.  That way, the next person won’t be able to sign in as you.
    • Before you log in to any site—for example, your e-mail or instant messaging (IM account)—check to see if the program automatically saves your user name and password and whether there is a way to logout.  Yahoo!, for example, keeps you signed in for two weeks by default.
    • Erase any history of your presence on a public computer.  Web browsers automatically track the sites you’ve visited and possibly the passwords used as well.  In the browser delete temporary Internet files and the history of your activity on that computer.
  • Guard against snoops:
    • Make sure no one is watching as you type.  People looking for passwords, user names, or other sensitive information can watch your fingers or the screen as you type.  Look around before logging on to be sure no one is watching.
    • Never walk away from the computer without logging off every program.  Even if you will only be gone for a moment, it only takes that long for someone to grab your information.  Log off every program that requires your login, password, or contains sensitive information.  Simply closing the browser will not remove your information; neither will going to a different Web site.
  • Some information is NEVER safe to enter on a public computer.  To protect yourself, never pay bills, make purchases, check bank accounts, enter social security numbers, your address, or any other personally identifiable information into a public computer.  This precaution is your best insurance against identify theft if the computer is compromised by keystroke loggers or other malicious software.

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Using Mobile Phones

For most people it is hard to imagine how we managed before we had mobile phones.  However, most cell phones today are small computers with rich feature sets.  Before you buy a phone for yourself or your child, ask some questions:

What are the features on the phone, and what services do these features enable?  Look at the answers from a safety perspective: what safeguards are in place along with all those cool features?

Here are some cell phone features you should consider before buying for yourself or your children:

1. Does the phone or device have Internet access?  Depending on the age and maturity of a minor, this may or may not be desirable.

2. Does the phone offer  filters that block content that could be harmful to children or offensive to you?  Is the filter turned on?  If the filter isn’t on by default, ask the sales person to turn it on for you in the store and help you set appropriate filter levels.

3. What services do the filters cover?  2007 was heralded as the year of mobile TV.  If your phone has TV, find out if the service allows you to set ratings restrictions on shows.  Find out how this feature treats unrated programs.  Are there filters that apply to music services?

4. Is the phone or device Bluetooth enabled?  Bluetooth is a technology that allows a mobile phone to seek, discover and ‘talk’ to other Bluetooth-enabled devices in the area.  This means that you may be contacted by others in close physical proximity, and the information on your phone could be accessed.  It also means that information (even viruses) can be sent to your phone without your knowledge or consent.  When Bluetooth functionality is turned off, other devices cannot detect the phone, pull information from it, or send information to it.

5. Does the phone or device have location (GPS) capability?  You should be able to block this capability or limit it so that you or your child cannot grant access to predators who are trying to track your location.

6. Rising image quality in mobile phone cameras provides opportunity for bullies and voyeurs.  Teens who at the spur of the moment allow someone to take inappropriate photos of them, or who take inappropriate photos of other minors are likely to regret this choice later, and may find that they face criminal charges for creating and distributing child pornography.

7. Can the phone access chatrooms?  If so, are the chatrooms monitored?  If they are moderated, how are they moderated?  Chatrooms, including game chatrooms, that are provided by mobile carriers and allow access to users less than 18 years of age should be moderated, or you should strongly consider blocking this functionality.  Even if these chatrooms are moderated, check the method of moderation as moderation by humans is more effective than automated moderation (a filter looking for potentially offensive words, for example).

8. Know how to report theft of the device.  You may need to provide hardware information found within the device itself under the battery.  If you don’t have this information written down, you surely won’t be able to find it once the phone is stolen.

9. Know how to report harassment or bullying.  The carrier should have a clear set of procedures you can use to report any malicious calls.  It is best to know these in advance of harassment and to discuss these procedures and all other issues listed here with any child who will use a phone.

10. Consider whether you should get a pre-paid account or an account that bills charges monthly.  Some companies allow you to review incoming and outgoing calls made on pre-paid accounts, some don’t.  Parents should choose an option that allows them to review calls for a number of reasons:

  • Seeing the monthly bill helps you understand who your child is communicating with.  Explain to the child that this isn’t intended as an invasion of privacy, but as a way to help keep him or her safe.  Numbers from out of your area should be flagged, but it is useful to be aware of all of incoming and outgoing calls.
  • Reviewing the monthly bill tells you what times of day calls are taking place.  If a child is having difficulty getting up for school in the morning, or is sneaking out at night, look at the child's phone calling and texting history.  Parents can ‘manage’ their children’s phones after a certain time in the evening, setting a time that the family believes it is too late for accepting phone calls, and returning the phone in the morning.  It is also useful to pay attention to calls made during school hours.  Most schools prohibit use of cell phones during school except for emergencies.  If a child or teen’s phone record shows a lot of calls placed during school hours (especially to other students) this could indicate a problem.

11. Adults should also sit down with their children to periodically check for other potential risks.  What ringtones are they using?  Are the photos they’ve taken and the photos sent to them appropriate?  What other items have they downloaded?  Does the device allow them to watch videos, and if so, what videos are they watching?  What services have they purchased?  There are some services, including interactive pornographic services, that you may not find appropriate.

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