The most jarring experience of my digital life just happened

A woman on her laptop in her living room.
Credit: Unsplash

I looked up my account and stared at the screen for a few minutes. I wasn’t really sure what to do, because I’ve never seen anything like it before.

On my credit card statement, someone in a different state had charged $68 at a restaurant. And then they charged another $30 for gas. Fortunately, my credit card labeled these charges as fraud and overturned them, and we’re back in the clear. I have a new credit card.

I also know how it happened. I didn’t lose my physical card, but I did click on a suspicious link. I know exactly which one, and I feel quite stupid about it. To give more details, it was a phishing scam involving a magazine subscription that actually did expire (these hackers are ingenious because they likely had access to a subscription list). So I renewed it. And, by the way, never did get the magazine, and never did track down how my personal info was sold.

In an age of digital theft, when we know these things are happening constantly, there must be an answer. I have now switched to a VPN to block these dangers (my favorite is NordVPN — if you click that link, know that receives a small affiliate amount). 

A VPN works in the background and protects you from malicious attacks online, but this particular VPN also includes a security agent called CyberSec that would have spotted that phishing scam link, warned me about it, and blocked the transaction entirely.

Security compromises are jarring. They take you out of a daily routine and put you into a different mindset, one where you imagine all sorts of terrible things. My Twitter account was hacked by a Russian organization once and they proceeded to spread some conspiracy theories from my account. I thought about people being seriously misled. (By the way, I know NordVPN would have protected my connection using encryption connecting to Twitter back then as well, and would have warned me about malicious sites that steal passwords.)

How do we live without feeling like our digital lives will be compromised constantly? In part, it is by employing tools and techniques that ward off the attacks. It might not lead to total peace of mind, but that does not seem to be the underlying issue. What is really happening is that most people don’t really do anything. They visit any site without thinking. They don’t use a VPN or any other protections, they assume the attacks won’t happen to them.

And, let me be clear: If you do go online, you will run up against malicious attacks. They are not subtle sometimes. I’ve visited sites by accident that look like they were created in five minutes, with one prominent link that quickly and secretly installs a web tracker. Your credit card might seem safe when you shop, but if you have a tracker installed, it can read what you type. 

And then there is this: You don’t even have to do anything at all. If you are working on a laptop at a coffee shop, or sitting at home on a wired connection, it is still possible that someone could be intercepting your connection on a server somewhere, especially if you don’t have a VPN. Suddenly, everything you do is tracked and your personal data is vulnerable simply by being online in the first place, not even by visiting a harmful site.

We’re living in an interesting time. Data compromise is a real issue, one that impacts almost anyone who chooses to visit websites, use apps, and post on social media.