The convenient yet dangerous life online

23 Aug 2009
Posted by Kiran

I am a great fan of doing things online. It is fast, convenient and easy. An online bank transaction can save you all the time and energy that would otherwise be required to go to the bank, wait in queues, deal with often unfriendly bank staff to get your job done.

Over the past few years, I have been consciously moving all my dealings online wherever possible. While online, I can purchase goods, make investments, track my investment portfolio, pay my Insurance premiums, check my bank balance, pay my telephone bills; I can pretty much do it all. I recently renewed my Indian car insurance sitting here in London - all online without having to travel back to India, provide a cheque or physically meet an insurance agent. My Dad, who is kind enough to take care of such stuff for me, did not have to be bothered with this one either.

Being online has more or less enabled us to take control of our lives without ever worrying about where we are physically located. Apart from easy access to day-to-day facilities, it provides us easy access to a wealth of information, exposes us to people of different cultures, enables us to assimilate thoughts and perspectives of a Global society.

Being online effectively makes us Global Citizens.

Many countries have recognized the importance of having a robust Technology infrastructure. The UK has plans to implement a nationwide high-speed broadband infrastructure. The US is also thinking on similar lines to bolster its own networks.

India too has taken steps in the right direction. Though not half as reliable, broadband is now ubiquitous in Indian cities and access to the internet is no longer a luxury for the privileged few. Though Broadband penetration remains low and limited to cities, it has generally been recognized as an essential piece of urban life. And with more and more players competing the services are bound to get better.

Online services have been recognized in India as a necessity. Whether an Insurance company or a Bank provides online services is now a key factor that people would consider before dealing with them. This has forced many of the traditional organizations in India such as public sector banks and insurance companies to join the online bandwagon. They have recognized that without providing services online it would become increasingly difficult for them to woo new customers, especially from the younger generations.

In the year 2000, India passed the Information Technology Act which laid the foundation for legalizing online transactions. Its implementation took longer, but by 2008 I was able to file my tax returns online and sign it with my legally valid Digital Signature. In my opinion this was a big step forward. I look forward to the day when such legal validity for online transactions can be extended to other Government functions as well. I would love to one day just go online, put in a legally valid application and carry out all my dealings with the local Municipal Office or Police force without having to make several trips to those dimly lit, dusty offices and grease the hands of some greedy and corrupt babus. Perhaps, this is the way that we can finally put a dent on the corruption rate in our country?

What we must recognize though is that this life online is far from being purely a dream story of convenience I have just described. While we recognize the ease and convenience that this online life affords us, we must also appreciate that this ease and convenience works both ways - it is equally easy for thieves and crooks out there to steal from us. Malware can make our online lives akin to hell. Viruses, Trojans, Spywares and Adwares can make operating a computer a very harrowing experience.

Moreover there are specialist crooks out there whose sole business is to trick people and get them to part with their money. Online fraud is a whole industry by itself. I recently read a very interesting story about Nigerian scammers and how the Global recession has affected their business. As one of the Nigerian scammers rightly commented in the story, if you win a lottery without ever buying a lottery ticket something is definitely wrong. Just don't be greedy - your greed can easily do you in! I have spoken to folks who get excited about spam emails offering them huge winnings of millions of dollars and wanting to know how they can claim their winnings! There was another story about online scams baiting renters which also made for interesting reading, especially given that I regularly rent properties when I am in UK.

These stories only serve to illustrate that life online needs us to be very alert and also make use of one of God's greatest gifts to us - common sense.

More often than not, people make themselves easy prey for crooks. How many of us are guilty of having easily guessable passwords such as our spouse's, child's, or pet's name or birthdays? Usually, these personal cues that we use as passwords are openly shared in Social Networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook or MySpace. Social networking sites are also fertile pastures for identity thieves. It is essential that we are careful about the amount of information shared on these networks and the kind of information we share. Online privacy, in my opinion, is not something to be taken lightly.

Another venue where we can potentially get scammed are sites such as EBay, which allow people to buy and sell goods. I have personally had a bad experience on EBay. I bid on a seemingly cheap sale of a Digital Camera - the Sony Cybershot DSCP100. I won the auction and soon got in touch with the seller, a certain Hanchai Ling, only to be asked to immediately transfer the bid amount to his account. The only information he provided was his bank account. I naively used the Internet Funds Transfer facility of my Bank to transfer the money to him and excitedly waited for the camera I had just won, at a price that could easily be considered a steal! I was in for the shock of my life. The camera never came and attempts to contact the seller yielded nothing. I managed to use EBay's buyer protection to get some of my money back but still ended with £100 bill for my naivety. These days there is rarely a transaction I carry out online without using PayPal - they provide robust payment frameworks and protection against fraud.

I learnt from my experience and am now much more careful.

While the Internet has indeed increased the ease and convenience of general day-to-day transactions, it has created a new range of dangers, dangers which people who aren’t alert can easily fall prey to.

Go online, there is a world on the Internet that you can easily get addicted to. It makes life a lot easier. However, while online, never let your guard down.