Updated 11-24-16 to change recommended add-ons and browser tools to include McAfee’s Site Advisor instead of Web of Trust. Web of Trust is currently not available for use in most web browsers over data-selling and other issues that have recently come to light.
This may come as a surprise, but you’re not staying safe by using AOL. Every day you encounter possibly unsafe ads, phishers and Nigerian scams. AOL is not protecting you (or me) from such routine online dangers.
AOL Email is Unsafe
Clicking the Spam Button in AOL’s email doesn’t make scams or phishers go away – for every email you mark “Spam”, more spam arrives in its place. Anyone can get their bulk (and sometimes, spammy) email whitelisted by AOL because it’s not a matter of the sender having a good website or email for you to read; it’s a matter of them wanting to send out email in bulk. Whoever’s willing to do so can get whitelisted. And your GoodMail? Really not so good, if you’ll pardon my pun.
So how does this gel with me saying, as I always do, that you should use AOL for free? All free email services have their share of spam and phishers. But AOL is not keeping you any safer than Yahoo or Live because AOL’s desktop client can’t be made safer with certain tools, while other email clients and web mail services (including AOL web mail) most certainly can.
AOL Software is Unsafe
The AOL Desktop client – the thing you hit your Taskbar’s blue Evil Eye icon to surf the web with – is not keeping your computer safer than other web browsers from phishing or website attacks. “Attack websites” run by malicious hackers can destroy your computer when you visit them from AOL’s Google-run Search results or from a link in a dangerous email.
AOL, despite the fact that they can block any website they want, does little to block websites that can harm your computer. For instance, AOL doesn’t pre-scan search results for viruses, trojans, spyware, adware, or misleading redirects to fake and dangerous websites. When you innocently click a link in search results, AOL does nothing to stop these bad websites from loading.
McAfee Anti-Virus is Unsafe
McAfee doesn’t protect your computer or email from the very real threats mentioned above. McAfee’s consumer products are thought to be ineffective, especially compared to other products you can use for free that don’t require AOL’s software (see list near end of article for more info). Not to mention McAfee can include lousy tech support and force predatory renewal practices on you.
AOL Chat Rooms & Message Boards Can Be Very Unsafe
This blog has sections for Reader’s Questions and Reader-Submitted Content, but there’s one type of email you won’t see here, from the many AOL users who write to me to say that thanks to visiting AOL’s message boards and chat rooms, their identities were stolen, their AOL accounts got hacked, hijacked, and TOSed, and new AOL accounts were created in their names that they can’t access because AOL can’t match up security questions and answers.
These victims of clever social schemes get their credit and debit card information stolen, the most personal details of their lives frequently hung out to dry on the message boards, and sometimes their personal safety is put at risk as well.
Does reporting abusive AOL users stop them? AOL message boards and chat rooms haven’t had living, breathing monitors in years, so hitting the “Notify AOL” or “Report Chat” button will do nothing most of the time. Users can create new accounts to continue harassing and hacking people faster than AOL can suspend screen names. One of the last victims I counseled via email was harassed by a person who changed her screen name over 2,000 times in 3 years just to keep stalking her. I was told by former AOL TOS team employees that nothing could be done outside of involving law enforcement to make it stop. Think that one over.
As for AOL chat rooms, they’re almost as bad. If it wasn’t for the requirement that you submit credit or debit card information before using them they’d be much worse, but what they lack in social engineers, they make up for with trolls and online harassment common to the AOL message boards.
Staying Safe Online – Easier Than You Think
These days, it is pretty simple to keep your computer (and yourself!) much safer while you’re online. When you’re done taking these steps, you’ll see your online experience is safer and gives you more control and peace of mind. If you don’t feel you can get your computer set up the way I describe below without some help, ask a geeky friend, family member, or a local, trusted computer repair shop to lend a hand. You’ll feel great knowing they got your computer working just right.
If you choose to keep using AOL software and/or getting online with AOL dial-up, you should still take every step listed besides canceling or removing AOL. These steps will give both AOL users and non-AOL users alike a much safer computer.
- Check that you connect to the Web through another company besides AOL. If not, here’s how to convert to a free AOL account or cancel AOL altogether.
- If you use Windows, check that Windows Firewall is turned on (Fix-It for XP; in Vista and Windows 7, click the Start Orb, Control Panel and Windows Firewall, then click the link on the upper-left labeled Turn Windows Firewall On or Off). Windows Firewall does more to protect your computer than almost any other step on this page will.
- If you use Windows XP, check that you’re running Service Pack 3. Visit Windows Update to see if you are; if not, Windows Update will install what you need, or you can order a free CD.
- If you use Windows Vista, check that you’re running Service Pack 2: click the Start Orb, click All Programs right above the search box, then click Windows Update on the next menu.
- If you use Windows 7, check that you have all the latest updates and patches: click the Start Orb, click All Programs right above the search box, then click Windows Update on the next menu.
- All Windows users: Click the Internet Explorer icon on your Taskbar or Start Menu (or type “iexplore” without quotes into XP’s Run Box, or type it into the Search box on Vista or Windows 7). Hit OK or the Search glass.
- On Vista and Windows 7, right-click the blue bar along the top of Internet Explorer and you’ll see a small dropdown menu. Click “Show Menus”, then (for all Windows users), click Tools, Internet Options, and Privacy.
Push the slider to “Medium High”, click “OK”, close Internet Explorer, and try not to use it again except to download a web browser (see the very last step). IE is at fault for many of AOL’s security risks because IE’s engine “runs” most of AOL’s elements. Not to mention IE makes my blog (and many other blogs) look so darn un-pretty.
- Remove AOL, then remove any McAfee products (you can skip this and the next step if you’re going to remain an AOL user; just scroll down to the last step).
- In this order: Install a good anti-virus product that gives maximum always-on protection (McAfee products are not on the list). I use Avast – and it’s free! Also get a copy of Malwarebytes Anti-Spyware or Super-AntiSpware. Let both tools run scans while you’re busy with other things; in an hour or so, check back and clean any results up. Check that all auto-run settings are “on” (you may need to purchase a license for always-on protection; check each tool’s website for more info).
- The safest Web comes with free browsers like Firefox and Opera. Firefox, unlike AOL, will block most attack and phishing websites and almost every pop-up. You can make it even safer with add-ons like AdBlockPlus, McAfee Site Advisor, LastPass, Nuke Anything Enhanced, and NoScript.
That’s it! Happy surfing!