Helping you balance your online life

Protecting Yourself Online After Natural Disasters

African American businessman using laptop in stormy sea

We all know that hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters can wreak devastation in their paths. Fortunately for us, these incidents inspire a lot of people to go online seeking news and information and ways to help those in need. Unfortunately, the high-volume of online traffic, particularly internet search traffic, around these topics also attracts more cybercriminals to swoop in on their prey.

The confusion following a hurricane or flood means people’s defenses are lowered and they may be more likely to fall victim to online schemes. Our eagerness to help may make us more susceptible to cyber criminals who are eager to do harm.

When natural disasters strike, you won’t always have the luxury of time to make sure your computers, mobile devices, and personal information are safe online. In your rush to provide aid to those in need, you may not be thinking clearly about the safest way to make donations online.

After a hurricane hit Texas, even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned people to be extra vigilant. DHS issued a warning about phishing emails and social media posts, which can steal your login information, infect computers with malware and con victims out of money.

Before, during or after a crisis of this nature, it is critical to follow tips like those below to help protect yourself before it’s too late.

  • Keep your computer software and operating system up to date. Hackers try to compromise computers running outdated software that has security holes.
  • Invest in an antivirus and anti-malware program like AOL Tech Fortress and ensure you have it set up to update automatically and conduct regular scans of your computer.
  • The inability for you to access your home or business may mean you have to connect to the web from public places using public WiFi. Use a virtual private network (VPN) like Private WiFi to encrypt your personal data and secure your online transactions.
  • Don’t accept or open unsolicited email or social media content from untrusted sources.

When searching the web:

  • Look out for any photos or videos that claim to be “just released” or “exclusive” from unknown news outlets. More and more news footage comes from people’s mobile devices these days. If it’s something worth seeing, a reputable site will probably show it.
  • Always verify the legitimacy of a website before interacting with it. Conduct some research on the web to help you figure out if a site is trustworthy.
  • Always be careful when a site asks you for credit card information. If a site is asking you to provide credit card information, verify it’s a valid site and organization by typing in the organization’s website address in a new browser window or checking to see that it’s encrypted with a secure HTTPS connection.

When donating online:

  • Never give to a charity that you know nothing about. Just because the address ends with a “.org” rather than a “.com” doesn’t mean it’s a non-profit organization. To determine if a group has tax-exempt status, go to the Internal Revenue Services web site. You can also cross-check organizations on this directory of national charities.
  • Make sure that you have the option to contact the charity online (through a working email address) and offline (through a phone number and a mailing address). Also, consider supporting groups with a physical address in the U.S because they are subject to our laws and regulations.
  • Before disclosing personal information, especially your credit card number, find out if the site has a privacy policy and read it carefully. You need to find out how the site plans to use your information and if it plans to sell it or exchange it.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, local and national companies that hold our sensitive personal information can also face data breaches from hackers when they lose internet connectivity and their systems go down. You can follow a few important steps mentioned at the bottom of this article to protect your personal identity and financial information.