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SSL (secure sockets layer) technology can help keep the information you send online private and secure. Fortunately, many websites automatically enable this type of secure connection, and there's nothing you need to download or install to benefit. For example, those who use the Experian website are provided a secure connection by default, and the same is true for most financial institutions, social media sites and e-commerce sites.
As you use the internet to perform key financial actions, a basic understanding of how SSL works—and its limitations—can help you stay safe online.
Why Is a Secure Connection Important?
A secure connection can help keep someone from stealing or changing information that's sent online. To create a secure connection, your device and the website's server use an SSL protocol—a set of encryption rules that both computers understand. Technically, the newer and more secure transport layer security (TLS) has been the default for decades, but people still commonly call it SSL.
When your device and the website connect, they'll automatically use the latest version of the encryption protocol that they both support. The secure connection is established within milliseconds and gives you several benefits:
- Encrypts your data: SSL encrypts the connection, hiding what others (even your internet service provider) can see.
- Verifies your connection: The protocol verifies that the website you're connected to is the site it's claiming to be, rather than an imposter.
- Protects your data: The protocol also verifies that data wasn't changed when being transmitted in either direction.
If the connection isn't secure, a hacker may be able to place themselves in the middle of your connection—what's known as a man-in-the-middle attack. They could then intercept anything that's sent back and forth, including your username, password, credit card details, messages and other personal information. Or, they may redirect you to a look-alike website they use to trick you into sending them personal information.
How Do You Know if Your Connection Is Secure?
SSL encryption has become the norm rather than the exception. Some web browsers even default to creating a secure connection with every website.
But a secure connection isn't possible if the website doesn't support it. To check if the connection is secure, look to see if:
- The URL starts with HTTPS instead of HTTP (the "S" stands for "secure").
- There's a closed padlock in the address bar.
For a time, web browsers gave users additional indicators of a secure connection, such as turning the URL bright green. However, that's changed as SSL has become the norm. Now, browsers may default to assuming a connection should be secure and have a pop-up that warns you if a connection isn't. You can still check for yourself by investigating the URL.
Why Secure Doesn't Necessarily Mean Safe
You want to be sure you're securely connected to a website whenever you're connected to the internet—not just when you're handling sensitive matters. However, you shouldn't confuse a secure site with a safe website.
It's not uncommon for fraudsters to set up phishing websites in an attempt to trick users into sharing personal and financial information. The website's SSL status is no indication of safety—in fact, most phishing websites use SSL.
The SSL connection keeps others from snooping on your connection, but you could still be securely sending your information to a criminal. Before transmitting any information via a secure connection, take steps to make sure you can trust whoever is on the receiving end.
Additional Ways to Protect Yourself Online
Even if you have a secure connection to a legitimate website, your information could be compromised during a data breach at a later point. Or, you might be tricked into sharing your personal or account information on the phone, via email or in a text, allowing someone else to access your accounts.
With this in mind, it's important to keep other security best practices in mind:
- Use strong and unique passwords. If you're using strong and unique passwords with all your online accounts, you don't have to worry about hackers accessing multiple accounts if they manage to compromise one of your accounts. A password manager can make this easier.
- Be careful when connecting to public Wi-Fi. You might not want to share personal information over a public Wi-Fi connection. A safer option could be to use your phone's mobile network if you want to log in to any of your accounts or make a purchase when you're not home.
- Learn to recognize fakes. Criminals could target you with phishing, smishing and vishing attacks to trick you into sharing your information. Or, you could be prompted to click on a link that installs malware on your device. The fraudster might then be able to take over your device or spy on anything you type.
- Use multifactor authentication. Enable multifactor authentication whenever it's available, which can keep fraudsters out of your account even if they have your username and password.
You can also look into identity theft protection services, such as Experian IdentityWorksSM. These programs can send you an alert if your personal information is found on the dark web, or if there's a suspicious change in your credit reports or other important databases. Experian's plans also come with assistance from U.S.-based fraud resolution specialists and identity theft insurance in case someone steals your identity.