Is it Possible to Bank Online Safely?

With the ongoing expansion of internet services, virtually every bank, savings and loan, lending institution and brokerage firm are using the internet to communicate and allow their customers the advantages of conducting transactions online. The convenience this offers to customers, and the cost savings this represents to the businesses is enormous, and when done correctly, can be as safe as, and potentially safer than, transactions through the mail.

Start by protecting your computer

If you don’t have a secure computer, all the other safeguards you take won’t help you because a cybercriminal will be collecting all your actions and information. Ask yourself the following three questions, if your answer to each isn’t a resounding yes, then make the needed changes:

  1. Is my computer as secure as possible? Having up-to-date security software, which includes antivirus and antispyware protection isn’t an option; it’s a requirement in today’s online world. If you aren’t sure that you have the needed security, install these tools, keep them current, and use them unfailingly – this should become as automatic as locking your doors when you leave your house.

    An unprotected computer will become infected with malicious software in an average of four minutes. That malicious software will steal your information and put you at risk for financial theft and other crimes.

  2. Is my connection to the internet as secure as possible? Securing your internet connection is as critical as securing your computer:

    • Make sure your firewall is on – this comes turned on by default when you purchase your computer but check to see it has not been turned off.

    • If you use a wireless network, turn on the encryption option – most routers are shipped with the encryption turned off.

    • Secure your wireless network at home by changing the router’s default network name and password. Leaving your router unprotected by a password is an invitation for crooks to come steal your information. If you do not know how to change the network name and password, go online to find specific instructions from the company that provides your router.

  3. Am I using strong passwords? See How do I Create a Strong Password if you aren’t sure. (One thing to keep in mind about your passwords: no financial institution or the IRS will send you an email message asking for your PIN or password. Ever!)

Understand your bank's online environment and fiscal health

If you are going to use the same bank online that you use offline you don’t have to worry about the banks’ legitimacy. However, if you are thinking of switching to an online-only bank, take the time to research the bank to be sure it is legitimate and solvent. There should be an ’about us’ section on the bank’s website. Look for how long the bank has been in business, where the bank’s headquarters are, and what you need to do to contact them. Look at the bank’s annual reports and other information to be sure the bank is solvent. Nearly 80 banks failed in the first half of 2011, and more than 140 banks failed in 2010 according to the FDIC’s failed bank list.

You need to also check to see if the bank is FDIC insured for at least $250,000 per personal account so your money is protected. You should see an FDIC logo on the site, but to be sure that it isn’t just faked, check the FDIC’s list of insured banks using their BankFind website.

NOTE: Small companies, school districts, and local governments that maintain commercial bank accounts typically aren’t covered by insurance as individual accounts are. Take particular precautions with these types of accounts, and understand that if an account of this type is hacked, the bank is not responsible for getting the money back unless they have specifically included an insurance coverage.

Recognize scams and fake websites

Once your computing environment is secure, and you’re using a legitimate, solvent bank the biggest risk to your online banking is if you fall for a scam. The scam could be specifically targeting your financial account by pretending to be the bank and sending you an official looking notice – this type of scam is called phishing, or it could be a more general scam that targets your computer to give it malware.

Phishing scams typically come through email or a text notification to your phone, and the messages can look very legitimate. These messages notify you of a ’problem’ with your account and ask you to log on to your ’bank’s site’ (this is actually a very convincing fake version of the l site) to fill in the necessary information. People who fall for these scams frequently provide the criminals with their passwords, account numbers, full names, birthdates, and sometimes even their social security numbers. Then their accounts are emptied and their identity stolen. No bank will ever ask you for this information in an email.

You can avoid falling for phishing scams by following one clear rule – never click on a link in an email. Always go to the bank’s website on your own by using a search engine. Once you know you are on the bank’s genuine site, you will see the same notice that you saw in email or by text if it is legitimate.

Don’t use public computers or public networks for financial transactions

You have no control over the security of a public computer or public wireless network; for all you know they are riddled with malicious software waiting to steal every last piece of your information. Make it a rule to never use these to access any financial or sensitive account.

Once you have your safety measures in place, enjoy all the benefits online banking provides.

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