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Safety First on craigslist

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When using craigslist, you need to protect yourself both online and in the real world. There are bound to be more than a few bad apples online, and this chapter shows you how to spot and avoid the rotten ones.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

The mission of craigslist is to use the Internet to bring people together offline. When using craigslist, you need to protect yourself both online and in the real world. Staying safe on the Internet is a growing concern. There are bound to be more than a few bad apples online, and this chapter shows you how to spot and avoid the rotten ones.

Internet Safety

True Internet security means protecting yourself and your computer. Although the topic may seem daunting, we all need to take the steps necessary to protect ourselves.

Secure Your Computer

Protecting yourself online means keeping your information private and your computer off-limits to cyber-criminals. Here’s a brief list of important security measures to take for your PC:

  • Use a firewall. Firewalls protect your computer from incoming attacks and can also block outgoing transmissions should your computer become infected with a virus or malware. Firewalls can be in either hardware or software form.
  • Update your Internet browser. Software manufacturers often release updates to address new security issues and fix program bugs. Whether you prefer Internet Explorer (IE) (www.microsoft.com/ie), Mozilla’s Firefox (www.mozilla.org), or another browser, be certain to use the most recent version. Both IE and Firefox have settings that allow the programs to update automatically.
  • Run antivirus software. Viruses can destroy your computer, steal your information, or run malicious programs without your knowledge. Install an antivirus program and keep it up to date. Several free or low-cost programs are available.
  • Run antispyware software. Spyware can be simply annoying or completely destructive. While some viruses and spyware work together and may be stopped with antivirus software, keep an up-to-date spyware detection program running for increased protection.
  • Secure your wireless network. Wireless Internet access (WiFi) is wonderful. If you use a wireless device in your home, however, follow the instructions in the user manual to set up security, or you’re giving hackers and freeloaders an open door to enter your world.
  • Turn on your spam filters. Most email programs include a spam filter that you can customize to your liking. Stopping spam before it reaches your inbox is another way to protect your computer from attacks. Antispam programs are available in case you want additional protection. I discuss this topic further in the next section.
  • Back up your computer. Performing regular computer backups protects your data and your sanity. Depending on your needs and budget, backups can be performed using a mix of external drives, software programs, or online resources.

Although nothing is foolproof, and new threats are always on the horizon, following the preceding recommendations provides a first line of defense. For more information about any of these items, I recommend that novice computer users pick up the latest edition of Michael Miller’s Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Computer Basics, available at most libraries and bookstores. Get Safe Online (www.getsafeonline.org) offers free expert advice about Internet security, including instructions for Linux and Mac users, and Tech Support Forum (www.techsupportforum.com) offers helpful details on security options, including how to diagnose and resolve security problems.

Now that your computer is protected, we can move on to protecting your information.

Protect Your Information

As in the real world, honest, law-abiding craigslist citizens far outnumber the criminals, so this chapter is not meant to scare you away. I want to empower you—to give you the knowledge and tools to use craigslist wisely and safely. Most Internet crime starts when unsuspecting users give out their personal information (directly or indirectly). Protecting your privacy is key to staying safe on the Internet. Let’s look at ways to keep your information out of the wrong hands.

Choose Your Email Address Wisely

Many people don’t realize how much information they reveal in their email address. Personal email addresses should never include your full name, your birth date, or other identifying information.

Guard Your Email Address

Never use your primary email address to register on any community-based or social networking site, sign up for a newsletter, or join a forum or group. Give your primary email address only to people you know and trust. When spammers learn your email address, your inbox will overflow with bogus offers and virus-packing email. Valid email addresses are sold from one spammer to another, so it’s nearly impossible to close the floodgates after you start receiving spam.

Spammers use harvesting programs and other devious tricks to steal people’s email addresses off websites and from forums. During my research for this book, I was shocked to discover a simple and free technique for gathering email addresses off the Internet. Without sharing the details, I tested it and was able to collect close to 1,000 addresses in less than 20 minutes (which I promptly deleted). But my test was enough to make it clear to me that using my actual email address for replies left me begging to be spammed.

Having multiple email addresses may seem like too much work, but using disposable email addresses (DEAs) can simplify things. A DEA is a temporary email address (alias) that you give out in place of your real email address. DEAs are useful for online shopping, signing up for websites and newsletters, or joining forums and user groups. Email sent to an alias is forwarded to the target address you specify, until the alias is turned off or expires. If you use a separate alias for each contact and begin to receive spam through a particular alias, you will know who compromised your information and can disable that alias without disrupting your other email.

A number of convenient disposable email services are available, but not all offer a way to reply to email by using your alias—and without that feature, you’ll still disclose your real address when you respond to email. TrashMail (www.trashmail.net) and spamgourmet (www.spamgourmet.com) are free services with good features and flexibility. Both allow you to reply to forwarded email without disclosing your true email address.

ShieldedMail (www.shieldedmail.com) and Emailias (www.emailias.com) are virtual email services that cost less than $20 per year. These web-based programs act as a protection layer between your inbox and the Internet. In addition to unlimited DEAs, features include virus scanning, multiple target addresses, and email header customization.

The downside of DEAs is that because people use them to send spam or flame mail anonymously, their domains are sometimes banned by group and list owners. Because both ShieldedMail and Emailias allow you to use your own domain name, you can use their services and not worry about this issue, if you want to take the time to set them up. Alternatively, you can use a domain seller, such as One World Domains (www.oneworlddomains.com), to register your own domain name for under $10 per year. This option gives you the freedom to use an address that’s more personal (and usually more interesting) than a typical Yahoo! or Hotmail address.

ZoEmail (www.zoemail.com) and Yahoo! Mail Plus (mailplus.mail.yahoo.com) are full-service web-based email programs that you can use as your primary email address. Both allow you to create disposable email addresses for your account to keep your inbox spam-free. ZoEmail pricing starts at $11.88 per year; Yahoo! Mail Plus will cost you $19.99 annually. Both are low-cost solutions when you consider the time saved by avoiding handling spam.

If you’re adamant about sticking with a single email address, try Gmail (mail.google.com). Google’s free email program offers one of the most powerful and customizable email services available. Part of its appeal is Google’s highly effective spam filter, which works with surprising accuracy to identify unwanted email. Spam is sent to a separate folder and deleted automatically after 30 days. Gmail is highly customizable, can act as a command center for multiple email addresses, and works with email clients such as Outlook and Mozilla.

Use Spam Filters and Blockers

If you’ve followed the recommendations in the previous section, you already have some type of spam filter running. But if you’re getting pummeled, this level of protection may not be enough. Consider adding one of the many antispam programs available today. These programs use a variety of technologies to identify, quarantine, and block spam before it hits your inbox.

Compatible filters are available for just about every email program. Here are three of the many available:

Because these filters work in different ways and have different features, take some time to research spam filtering and find the filter that works best for you.

Don’t Let Things Slip

You’re not obligated to provide your information to anyone, particularly via email. Some Internet scams are designed to steal a person’s money outright, but the goal of many cons is to trick users into giving out their personal information, which leads to identity theft and can cause much greater damage.

Even if someone requests your phone number, address, or banking information, you don’t have to give it to that person. Share your information only when you feel safe doing so. Also, never provide more information than necessary. If someone responds to an ad and wants to contact you by phone (and only if you’re comfortable doing so), send only your first name and phone number; the recipient doesn’t need your last name or address until you reach the stage where you’re ready to meet. If you’re following the craigslist model, there’s never a reason to share your financial information.

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