How to Safely Work Online as a Freelancer or Digital Nomad

More and more of us are working remotely, either as freelancers, digital nomads, or even full-time employees. In fact, recent research suggests up to 70% of professionals telecommute at least once per week. What many fail to realize, though, is when you leave the office, you also wave goodbye to many of the systems and protocols that keep your work and devices secure.

Luckily, it isn’t difficult to stay safe online when you’re working remotely. 

Remember the basics

There is no shortage of security tools but unless you use them regularly and update them as required, they’re effectively useless. We recommend installing a reputable anti-virus program, running frequent malware scans, and turning on automatic updates so you won’t feel tempted to dismiss the notification whenever it appears. These steps are particularly important if you only work remotely sometimes; if you bring a malware-carrying device back into the office, you run the risk of infecting every device on the company network. 

If you’re just getting started as a freelancer, money is likely tight. As a result, you might be tempted to download programs that claim to let you use paid software for free, but we strongly advise against this. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is; most websites offering hacked or cracked software are simply trying to infect your system with malware. Plus, even if their patches work, you could find yourself in legal trouble down the road. 

The good news is that there are free options for almost any tool a freelancer could ever need. For instance, Google Docs is a great alternative to Microsoft Word, Wave can keep track of your accounts, and PayPal allows you to send invoices for free. Better still, all of these services are online, meaning you don’t have to install anything and can access them on any internet-connected device. 

How to manage passwords like a pro

We cannot overstate the importance of good password hygiene. If you use the same password on every service, an attacker only has to compromise one account to gain complete access to your social media profiles, emails, and possibly even your online banking service. This is easier than you might expect, too, given that two of the most commonly used passwords are “123456” and “password”. 

You might think that a breach would never happen to you, but data leaks happen all the time, and your login credentials may already be available online. Luckily, there’s an easy way to check: just type your email address into Have I Been Pwned and you’ll be able to see if your details were included in any major data breach. 

This is why it’s so important to change your password every few months at least. If you have trouble keeping track of which password is for which service, you might want to consider using a password manager. These allow you to generate passwords that are long, complex, and crucially, very difficult to crack, and as an added bonus, using one means that you only have to remember one password at a time. 

Staying safe on public wifi

One of the best things about telecommuting is that you can work from any location with a public wifi hotspot. However, these networks are rarely as secure as they should be, and with so many people using them, they’re a prime target for hackers. 

If an attacker manages to compromise the network you’re using, they’ll be able to see all of your internet traffic. This includes not just the sites you visit, but your login credentials, the contents of any messages you send, and really, any information that appears onscreen. Luckily, there’s an easy way to protect yourself: connecting to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). 

VPNs encrypt your traffic and send it through servers elsewhere in the world. This means that anyone monitoring the network will only be able to see completely meaningless strings of data instead of detailed information about what you’re doing online. What’s more, the best VPNs have effectively uncrackable encryption and high speeds, so you’ll never have to trade security for convenience. 

Protecting your devices when out of the office

It’s easy to become complacent when working in a public place. For instance, you might not think there’s anything wrong with leaving your laptop at the table while you get another cup of coffee: after all, you’ll only be a few feet away and it’ll only take a minute. However, this is a dangerous way of thinking. 

To start with, anyone could just walk away with your laptop. Believe it or not, this is just the beginning of your problems. If it was unlocked, they now have access to all of your files. If your browser automatically saves passwords, the thief will likely be able to log into your email account, which can be used to reset the password on just about every service you use (unless you’ve set up two-factor authentication, which we highly recommend).  

Remember: people don’t always need physical access to your device in order to compromise your security. In fact, all they have to do is keep an eye on you. Sooner or later, you’ll log into a website, unlock your phone, or check social media, and as long as the attacker can see your screen or keyboard, there’s a decent chance they’ll be able to glean valuable personal information such as your name, email address, password, or device PIN. 

How to recognize potential security concerns

There are dozens, if not hundreds of different online scams, and as a freelancer, it’s your responsibility to be able to recognize them. You’ve received an email that asks you to log in to your bank account, but it’s full of spelling errors? That’s a phishing email from someone looking to steal your money. A colleague has contacted you via a new email address to ask for information that they should already know? It could well be a social engineering attempt. 

Also, never send money to someone you met online (unless you’ve hired them). People have been scammed out of their life savings by giving money to a romantic partner who doesn’t exist, paying for non-existent gold, or trying to prevent an embarrassing video recording (which, again, isn’t real) from being leaked. Additionally, the over-payment scam, commonly used on sites like Craigslist, is often repurposed to target freelancers. In these scenarios, a client pays you more than the agreed-upon price for your work, then asks you to transfer some of it back to them. Next, they just wait for you to send them money, cancel their initial payment, and run, leaving you out of pocket. 

Conclusion

There’s a lot to look out for when it comes to online security, but if anything strikes you as odd, it’s usually best to go with your gut. Don’t respond to any suspicious messages, block the email address, and change your password and security questions if you notice unusual activity on any of your accounts,

Ian Garland

Ian Garland

an Garland is a tech writer, programmer, and author with a particular interest in digital privacy. When he's not writing, he reads, and when he's not reading, he explores the process of indie game development on https://twitter.com/IanGarland_/.
Ian Garland

Latest posts by Ian Garland (see all)

Let's be inbox friends!

Let's be inbox friends!

Drop us your email to receive a weekly digest of our latest blog posts right in your inbox.

To confirm your subscription, please check your email.