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Are You Ready to Embrace Online Banking?

This primer may get you off the fence — and on your laptop

I use Wi-Fi with my personal laptop. Could someone tap into my account at home or outside, say, at a coffee shop?

Hughes: Generally speaking, online banking Web sites are protected using end-to-end strong encryption technology, which ensures that even if you are using an unsecured wireless access point, the information and data being transferred between your laptop and the bank is completely encrypted and therefore not viewable by a malicious person in between. But it's important to understand that there are potential risks associated with using unknown and nonsecured wireless (Wi-Fi) access points. Using and maintaining firewall and antivirus software on your computer is important when using public Wi-Fi hotspots, and you should avoid using any Wi-Fi hotspot you are not familiar with for banking.

Which is more secure: banking by computer or by mobile phone?

Hughes: Both of these channels are safe and secure if you take the appropriate basic precautions on your computer or mobile phone. In the world of computers, the operating system software that makes them work has been improved and made more secure over time. As long as you follow the general rules of online computer safety they provide a safe online banking environment. Mobile devices have the advantage of running relatively new operating system software, which has been developed in large part with strong security in mind from the very beginning. Both types of online banking access can be safely and reliably used.

What are a few things I can do to keep my information safe?

Hughes: Encryption, patching, antivirus and firewalls help keep a bad person from snooping or hacking your system and stealing information, but there are much lower-tech methods that criminals use to try to get access to online banking accounts. We call these methods social engineering, and they are made up of various ways that the criminal tries to make you believe they are someone legitimate in order to convince you to provide them with your private and personal information.

1. Whether via email, in a Web browser, phone call or even in person at your front door, question any and all requests or solicitations for sensitive information. Your bank will never ask you to give it your online banking password on the phone, for example, and you should never provide personal information in response to an email. Be suspicious whenever you are asked for things such as account numbers, PINs, Social Security numbers, passwords and the like — no matter how legitimate the email looks or the caller sounds. The best rule to follow is this: If someone else initiated contact with you, don't share sensitive data. Hang up or delete the email — you can always call your bank back at a number you know to be legitimate in order to ask if it was a legitimate request. If you get an email or text message that contains a link and you're not sure where it came from or if it's legitimate, don't click! Just delete the message.

2. Always have a firewall and antivirus/antimalware software running on your computer. This is a simple and fundamental step to prevent much of the bad software and people that are out there from affecting your computer system.

3. Apply operating system and software patches to your computer and mobile device when they are available. Many people have difficulty understanding how to do this on their mobile phones, but often the device manufacturer or mobile phone vendor where you bought the phone or tablet can do a very good job of showing you how.

4. When you are accessing an online banking website, make sure the connection is encrypted. An indicator of a secure website is an address (also called a URL) that begins with "https" in the address bar; the "s" stands for "secure." The "https" prefix should be seen on every page of websites that are used to conduct transactions, in addition to the sign-in page.

What are some, if any, drawbacks to banking online?

Gentile: The biggest drawback may be your own level of personal comfort with obtaining and using financial services in this manner, and perhaps the face-to-face customer service, if that is important to you. (As a workaround, some banks allow you to "chat" or instant message a representative online to answer your questions and concerns.)

Otherwise, you can't beat the convenience.

Stacy Julien is a writer and editor with AARP Media.

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