Multimillion-dollar organizations maintain lists of stolen credit cards and bank accounts, buy merchanise, have it shipped to package launderers - often dupes who think they are doing a legitimate job - who then ship it to fences that dispose of the items on the gray market, sometimes on auction sites. The overworked police and the FBI don't make the slightest effort to stop any of it. Eventually the tipping point will be reached that the dangers of using the Internet outweigh the benefits. This is part and parcel of a world slipping out of control, and there are other factors which will lead more directly to the breakdown of the Internet itself, but that's another article.
In the meantime, there are a few simple things you can do which will dramatically improve the safety of your Internet experience. And none of them will cost you a penny!
Use Firefox. Internet Explorer should be used once only: to go to firefox.com and download Firefox. After that, use Firefox for all browsing. If it were possible to delete Internet Explorer, I'd suggest doing that, but it's not.
Once you have Firefox, you should get two add-ons which make it much safer. (In Firefox, go to Tools menu, Add-Ons, Install Add-Ons.) These are AdBlock Plus and NoScript. AdBlock Plus will remove many ads from websites which make web browsing unnecessarily slower. There may be blank areas where ads were supposed to go, but think about the time saved. Many sites these days have a tiny bit of text in the middle surrounded by dozens of slow-loading, fully-graphical, obnoxiously colored and semi-pornographic ads. You would never click on any of them, why look at them in the first place?
When you install AdBlock Plus, you can select a subscription to a list of sites. I usually pick EasyList USA. The reason for this is that AdBlock Plus is a "blacklist", that is, it allows anything that's not listed.
What's really neat is that, when looking at a page, if you see some ads you don't want to see again, you can click the little "ABP" stop sign, and add the sites generating those ads to your list. Poof! They disappear forever.
After a while, you should have most of your sites working correctly, and the bad guys won't be able to get through, at least not the easy way. Just in case, however, you should install an anti-virus/anti-spyware/anti-trojan package. I recommend Avast Free. The free version is fine.
Of course, you already know about not opening any email attachments. Even people you know may unwittingly send you an attachment containing a virus. There are times when you have to take the chance - someone sends you an important schedule, for example - but if you don't absolutely have to open it, don't. Also, you should know not to follow any links which are in an email. Even though the screen says, for example, "http://www.cnn.com", it may actually go somewhere else; the displayed text is actually only a label, the actual link is invisible.
Yes, things are pretty bad on the Internet, and getting worse. These techniques will only stave off the danger. Even mobile devices can get viruses, and I'm not aware of any way to protect them. Already, there are Android viruses. Please be careful. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
Copyright 2011 by Rick Rodman. Last updated 10/13/11.