The internet is such a part of everyday life that we don't even think about it any more. It's no more exotic and unexpected than having water coming out of the taps. However, unlike the water coming out of our taps, the internet isn't always pure and clear. And by using it without taking the proper precautions, we could find ourselves becoming the victims of online fraud.
So how can we protect ourselves?
CIFAS, the UK's fraud prevention service, discovered that in the last year, card fraud and identity theft had surged - with over 125,000 separate instances. A significant proportion of these frauds are perpetrated because people don't take sufficient precautions online. So what do you need to be aware of, and how can you protect yourself?
Experian has produced 5 top tips to stay safe online.
Beware of phishing expeditionsThese involve emails or phone calls which come out of the blue, and persuade you to part with your credit card details or bank account information. There are a number of common approaches.
One is to pretend to be from your bank or card provider, asking you to log on and verify your identity. If you click on the link they have sent, you'll be sent to a site run by fraudsters, who will collect the information you input and use it to take your money. Others will use a likely-sounding story, such as telling you you have a PPI repayment waiting or a tax rebate.
Experian says that your best approach is to assume that all emails asking for confidential data are scams. If you receive an email you should contact the organisation involved to let them know about the scam - using email or phone details you have elsewhere rather than the link on the email.
Don't be a TwitBe careful about what you reveal through social media. It can be easy to post photos of valuable possessions, complain about your bank by name, boast about a forthcoming holiday or mention pet names, your mother's maiden name or anything else you may have used as a password. There are plenty of people out there - including your 'friends' or people posing as them - who would use this to access your email, infiltrate online banking, or even burgle your home while you're away.
Be wary of wi-fiIt might be a useful way to buy something on the hoof, or check your bank balance, but there can be nasties hiding in public wi-fi when you're out and about - and your every online move can be watched.
Experian say it's worth being wary, avoid baking online on public wi-fi, and steer clear of any sites that need a password - from banks to social networks.
Check your statementsIf a fraudster has taken over your account, or accessed your credit card, your statement is the first place it will show. Experian says that fraudsters are increasingly taking smaller amounts from their victims on a regular basis rather than a one-off hit. If you don't check your statements, it's easy to miss this. One of the best approaches it to go through every single transaction and only tick them off when you're absolutely sure you know what it is.
Check your credit report - regularlyThis will reveal if your identity has been compromised by a fraudster, because it will list every single credit account - from credit cards to store cards and mobile phone accounts. It will also show any searches that have been carried out for new credit, so you can spot any unexpected entries and raise them as a query with Experian - which will investigate whether you have been a victim of fraud. If you discover anything unexpected it's also essential to raise it with the lender concerned, so they know it's a fraudulent account.
If you take these steps, it should reduce your chances of becoming a victim. However, some risk will always remain. Experian highlights that if you do become a victim of online fraud, it's important not to panic.
You need to contact any lenders or banks affected by the fraud, and explain what has happened. Once they have ascertained that you are not to blame, they will refund the money. You can deal with this yourself, but if you join CreditExpert, you will get a dedicated caseworker who can hold your hand through the process.
Discovering that your internet activities have been compromised can feel as if something murky and unpleasant has come into your life, and poisoned your dealings with the rest of the world. It's the price we pay for having internet that's as common as running water - but fortunately when it's polluted it doesn't have to have quite such dramatic consequences.