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How Google's Privacy Policy Affects You

Tips to protect yourself from phishing scams and releasing too much information to advertisers

How to Safeguard Your Privacy Online

Don't provide personal information online. Your address and telephone number are valuable tools for potential identity thieves. It is best never to post them publicly on the Internet. And even if they're requested for a contest or other promotion, there have been too many instances of hackers breaking into databases and stealing personal information to make this seem like a good idea.

Beware of phishing attacks. It's relatively simple for bad guys to send you a message that appears to come from a trusted source: your bank, your credit card company, the IRS. Be very cautious when replying to these emails. They may claim that access to your account has been restricted and ask you to enter personal information (potentially including your Social Security number) to reactivate the account. In the face of this sort of online contact, it's far better to reach out directly, via the phone number provided on your bill, and speak to a representative who reliably represents the institution in question.

When posting to social networks, restrict your audience. When making comments, uploading photos and so on to social networks (i.e., Facebook, Google +), you have control over who actually gets to see what you posted – but you have to assert that control, or your posts will be available to anybody who happens to wander by (including search engine users). Until recently, the choice was simple: is my post publicly available, or only to my designated online "friends"? Today you can be more precise in your message targeting. The pioneer of this idea was Google + Circles. The Facebook List feature is similar.  You can create separate groups of "friends" and assign different access levels depending on your post.

Use different passwords for different sites, and change them frequently. Yes, using multiple passwords and switching them up periodically is a pain. Yet you don't want a hacker who manages to access your phone company bill-paying password to suddenly have access to your online banking account too, right? For more info on password protection, read Passwords to Head Off Hackers.

Keep antivirus software up to date

Unfortunately, it's easy to pick up malicious programs while surfing the Web — sometimes all you have to do is visit the wrong site and you'll be infected. That's why running an antivirus program, and keeping it current through regular updates, is so important (and yes, that includes you Mac users).

Set up a "junk" email account

Sometimes you just can't resist responding to a special offer or contest promotion on the Internet, but that doesn't mean you need to expose your primary email account, the one used by all your friends and family, to potential intrusion. There are plenty of free email providers (Gmail being a personal favorite) that will let you set up a spare email account at no charge, useful for online goodie shopping, but disposable if something goes wrong.

You may also like: Should you join Google’s social network?

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