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5 expert tips to help you avoid online scammers during coronavirus pandemic

People are spending a lot more time online these days, and it's important to make sure you keep your information protected.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scammers are usually after only one thing: financial gain.

They need your sensitive personal information to achieve that, according to Dr. Dan Lin, a digital privacy and security expert with the University of Missouri, but you can make sure your information remains protected by being aware of the creative ways scammers might try to extract it.

And as people are spending more and more time online these days while staying at home, there are plenty of opportunities for scammers to exploit.

Here are five tips from Lin to keep you and your data safe. 

1. Know your security questions

Most banks and other sensitive accounts may ask you security questions when you log on or forget your password to verify you are who you say you are. 

These are often simple questions that can range from your mother's maiden name to the name of your first pet or the make of your first car. 

When selecting your security question answers, Lin suggests noting what the question is, as well as its answer, so you're aware not to share anything related to that information elsewhere online, especially on social media. 

She also said it's okay to make-up an answer. Maybe your first car was a Honda Civic, but you always wanted a Volkswagen Bug. If you can remember what you wrote as the answer, go with the Bug as a way to protect against scammers and yourself, in case you share too much. 

2. Remove the metadata from your photos and beware of the background

When posting a photo taken by a digital camera, Lin suggests you remove the metadata stored in the image file. 

Image files, even after they're uploaded, can sometimes contain data that include when and where the photo was taken, which is valuable information for scammers. They can manipulate that data fairly easily. 

To remove that metadata, Lin said you can find the properties of the photo file when you open it and save it without those details before uploading it. 

And if there's any information in the background of the photo, like an address, name of a business or a school sign, that can give away clues to scammers, too, Lin said. 

Take the example of a graduation photo. Recently, people have been posting their old graduation photos as a way to support the class of 2020 online. But, a lot of information about you could be held in that photo, like what year you graduated, where you graduated from and even the day you graduated. You might be pictured with your family or your best friends, giving more clues into your life for scammers to utilize. 

The same could be true when posting photos of your mom for Mother's Day. As the holiday approaches, Lin suggests reaching out to her directly instead of posting about her online. If you do post a photo of her and she's tagged, that could easily give scammers access to information like your first home address or your mom's maiden name if you're not careful.  

RELATED: Phishing attacks could be on the rise while people stay at home during COVID-19 pandemic

3. Scrutinize online challenges and what data you may be giving away

While it might be fun to play along with an online challenge, you have to be really careful about what you're sharing, Lin said. 

Recent challenges like "unpopular opinions" or those asking for you to share facts like your first pet's name, favorite instrument, etc. can be easily manipulated to impersonate you. 

If you're posting information that only you and your loved ones would typically know about you, think twice on it, Lin said. Make sure it couldn't be used to answer your security questions or to impersonate you or a loved one to family and friends. 

4. Don't fall for a false sense of urgency

Scammers will sometimes use your personal information to impersonate someone, Lin said, and they'll create a sense of urgency that prompts you to act first and think through it later.

If someone says there's an emergency and they need funds now to fix it, ask questions and gather evidence, Lin advises. Really try to verify what that person is telling you and their credibility.

RELATED: It's a scam: Don't give out your personal information to get a stimulus check, Dallas County DA warns

Lin said this could be particularly true of those trying to impersonate the government. They'll try to back you into a corner with a tight deadline, but it's important to get another source. If they claim to be the IRS, for example, hang up and contact the IRS directly from the government website, or reach out to your local law enforcement to check the validity of the claim. 

Often too, Lin said, real government issues won't have those tight deadlines to begin with, so have a healthy dose of skepticism.

5. Be aware of the privacy settings on your accounts

First thing first, try to make your accounts as private as possible to protect yourself.

But also be aware of how your connections could make you vulnerable, Lin said. If friends of your friends can see your posts, you can be very exposed to a large number of people and that information isn't really as private as you might think it is. 

Whenever you post something online, the bottom line, according to Lin, is that you should always presume it can be seen by anyone, no matter your privacy settings.

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