Protect Yourself

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Gmail Master

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It’s time to take a look at maintaining your Gmail security. It’s no secret that the Internet can be a dangerous place. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an IT security geek to protect your Gmail account. With a few simple, common sense steps, and a little familiarity of some key Gmail features, you can protect yourself from people trying to gain access to your account.

You know the story. You get an email from a friend of yours who is reported to be stranded overseas and needs a couple hundred dollars to get home. This is one of the common messages and, of course, completely false. Your friend’s email account has been compromised, he’s got no idea until it’s too late, and your name happened to be in the address book along with who knows how many others who got a similar message. Remember, they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t work at least some of the time.

How do you prevent yourself from the same fate as your friend? (Not the ‘getting stuck overseas part’). The first step is understanding how your account could be breached. One way is forgetting logout on a public computer (a hotel kiosk for example.) Another way would be if someone had installed keylogging software on the computer you used. While undetectable to you, there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk.

First, select a strong password. Use a combination of letters, numbers, and throw in a symbol here or there. Use uppercase and lower case letters. Don’t use dictionary words or common names. Make it meaningful to you. For example: iat#1gmn! would be short for (I am the number 1 Gmail ninja). Also, change your password periodically. Yes, I know this is a pain, but when you think about it, even if someone has captured your password from a keylogger, it won’t be any good once you change your password. You can change your password under Settings> Accounts and Import> Change Account Settings or go to http://www.google.com/accounts

Second, remember to sign out when you’re done. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget.

Third, monitor any open sessions and understand what they mean. At the bottom of the main conversation index, there’s a line that says “Last account activity” and a link at the end to display the details. If you, or someone else, is logged on from another computer, it will tell you there. I often see one or two other computers logged in because I forget to logout on my home computer then access Gmail from work. By clicking on the Details link Gmail displays the location and IP addresses of the other sessions, a button to terminate the other sessions immediately, and a history of recent activity. It’s a good idea to become familiar with your home and work IP addresses so you can spot others that you don’t recognize. Remember to periodically scroll to the bottom of the screen and see how many other seessions are going. If it’s one or more, have a look at the details to be safe.

Finally, Gmail has created a feature that removes some of the burden of monitoring your activity. If Google sees activity on your account from two different countries within a few hours, you will see a warning message at the top of the screen in red which starts out “Warning, We believe your account was last accessed from…” You can turn this setting off from the same Activity history details mentioned earlier, but I don’t recommend it. Hopefully you’ll never see this message. While it’s nice to know Gmail is helping with some of the security, it doesn’t relieve you from doing some of the measures mentioned earlier.

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