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A Student's Guide to Cybersecurity: Protecting Your Data

Linsey Knerl
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Reading time: 7 minutes

Cybersecurity is the action you take to keep criminals from accessing your devices, systems, or personal information. While cybercrime is on the rise, college-aged adults are particularly vulnerable.
Fraud reports are more likely to be filed by someone between the ages of 20 and 29 than by someone over the age of 50. The FBI reports that in 2023, it was most common for young adults to be targeted through social media and payment apps, and online shopping presented most of the opportunities to be harmed.
Fortunately, hackers and thieves cannot get to your financial or personal information if you take some steps to protect yourself. The most effective tips for student cybersecurity can be learned by anyone and practiced daily.

Understanding the threats

cyberthreats on computer
Any electronic device that can connect to the internet is an opportunity for cyber criminals to try to exploit. While not a complete list of the threats that exist, these are the most common.

Malware

Malicious software, or “malware,” is any software, app, or program made to disrupt or harm your computer or systems. You may willingly download it thinking it’s a legitimate app, or it could come bundled with more reputable software. Signs of malware include a slow PC, excessive pop-ups, or changes to files or settings. Malware is the more general term for specific types of risks like spyware or ransomware.

Spyware

A type of malware that infects your devices and shares your data with your permission is called spyware. Anything from your credit card numbers to personal photos is at risk of being transmitted when spyware gets installed on your computer or phone. It can follow you as you shop, chat with friends, or share photos and videos on social media. If you do it while spyware is running, there’s a risk that it may go public or be used against you.

Ransomware

Ransomware is another category of malware that accesses your personal files or data, then threatens to steal, destroy, or publish it if you don’t pay a ransom. Some ransomware works by locking you out of your accounts or devices until you pay; others give you a timeframe to send money before your information is compromised.

Phishing

Another kind of cybercrime is phishing, in which a criminal pretends to be a legitimate business or someone you know. They will try to get you to share information to help them steal or take over your accounts, and they can be very sophisticated in how legitimate their messages appear. They may ask for a password, banking information, or personal login details, often by asking you to put it into a fake website that appears to be from your bank or favorite shopping site.

Artificial intelligence (AI) crimes

The newest category of cyber threats has to do with the rise of AI. Criminals may use AI-generated audio, video, or photos to try to convince you that they have information they don't have or even threaten to spread false media unless you pay a ransom.
Fake ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are popping up, as well. They look like the real ChatGPT but use the information you put in to steal your financial information or identity. Also, use a reputable AI tool and visit the website by typing out the URL yourself. Whether your school allows you to use ChatGPT is another issue, but even if you are using it for fun, you should stay alert to this newest type of scam.

Cybersecurity best practices

protecting computer
While criminals have designed new ways to steal information or money, they often can’t do it without your permission. Here are the top online safety recommendations you can follow to reduce your risk.

1. Create strong, unique passwords

  • Make your passwords a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols, and don’t use family or pet names.
  • Keep personally identifiable details out of your passwords, and never use the same password for two different sites.
  • Change your password frequently.

2. Recognize and avoid phishing attempts

  • Read emails from businesses or shopping sites carefully to be sure they are legitimate. Check the “from” address, hover over links without clicking, and pay attention to odd-sounding phrasing.
  • Don’t click links inside emails, especially if they prompt you to change your password or enter sensitive info. Instead, type out the website address in a separate window and start a new session.
  • Don’t react to emails that show a large, unrecognized charge or that threaten you with an unpaid bill. Reach out to the company directly through another method if you are concerned there has been a mistake.

3. Regularly update and patch software

  • Set your computer and devices to accept automatic updates for your operating system and security software.
  • Any critical updates should be applied immediately and not postponed.
  • Non-essential apps and programs should be updated regularly. If an app no longer receives security updates, consider removing it.

4. Use a trusted antivirus program and firewall

  • Continue using the software that came installed on your device, or consider another reputable option.
  • Perform regular security scans and take action when alerted to an issue.
  • Don’t turn off your firewall, even if it prevents a product or service from operating.
  • Consider ad blockers, pop-up blockers, and services that disrupt tracking cookies.
  • Listen to warnings from your security software about unknown sites, potential download risks, and untrusted links. While not all risks will be identified, the bulk of hazards are known to these programs, and they can alert you to them.

5. Back up data regularly

  • Perform regular, if not daily, updates to your computer and device files, photos, software, and settings.
  • Use a cloud-based service from a brand you trust, such as the company that makes your antivirus software.
  • If you have too much data to back up to the cloud, use an external hard drive device to keep everything stored.
  • Make sure your backups are password-protected.

6. Use a VPN for secure connections, especially on public WiFi

  • A virtual private network, or VPN, can help keep the information private when you send it over Internet networks.
  • Turn on a VPN when connecting to public WiFi networks, like those used in coffee shops and hotels.
  • Consider changing your VPN location to somewhere you aren’t located, such as a different country, if you are concerned about being tracked.

7. Use 2-factor authentication

  • Don’t rely on just a password to keep your accounts safe. Multi-factor authentication uses a second method, such as a text message sent to a smartphone, to verify that it’s you logging in.
  • Pick a second authentication method that you will always be able to access and that only you can verify.
  • Include a backup method of authentication in case you get locked out of your phone or email account.

Relevant tools and resources

resources against cyberthreats
While the ways in which cybercriminals operate may change frequently, you are not alone. Access these resources to get up-to-date information on scams and cyber threats and the best practices for staying safe when online.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The FTC offers a wealth of information on the latest scams and cyber crimes. They share how criminals are using LinkedIn to target students with fake job offers and how to spot a counterfeit apartment rental. Not all of the crimes they share are related to computer safety, but they are important to know. By staying up-to-date with the news, you can protect yourself and help friends and family.

HP computers and software services

Whether you buy a laptop or desktop, HP computers come with antivirus and advanced malware protection to reduce the chances you’ll be caught in a scam. The security software also alerts you to ransomware attacks, looking out for threats you may not even be aware of.
Another option is to partner with a trusted brand in PC safety by having HP Wolf Security handle more of the essential tasks. It makes it simple to find and locate a lost or stolen computer remotely. You can then protect the data and keep thieves from accessing your most important files, programs, or social media networks. Built for business and enterprise uses, it’s available for students or anyone wanting to lock down sensitive info and keep their wireless network safe from prying eyes.

Summary

By knowing the best online safety tips and being consistent with your PC security habits, you can keep your information safe, whether at home, in the dorms, or when studying at the local coffee shop. If the worst happens, visit the FTC’s website to see what actions you should take for each type of compromised information. What you’ll need to do for a stolen credit card number will be different than if you have your driver’s license revealed.
You can also review your current tech setup to make sure it's as secure as possible. From creating a unique, extra strong password for your bank account to backing up those college papers to a secure cloud storage service, each effort you make can go a long way toward a safe and secure school year.

About the Author

Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes.

Disclosure: Our site may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.