Broadband.co.uk Blog: Features

Regular Broadband-related news and comment from the Broadband.co.uk team.

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Broadband-related features and articles.

Laptop and phone

Big brand or small name? Should you choose a small broadband provider?

Posted on 2020-04-03 15:55 in Features

There's a lot of choice when you're shopping for a new broadband deal, and a whole range of different suppliers.

You've got the big brands, with long established reputations, alongside companies you might never have heard of before. So should you be swayed by a famous name, or are the smaller providers worth a look?

Let's see some of the factors you'll need to consider.

Speed

If you're shopping for a basic fibre broadband service then the speeds you're looking at are going to be roughly the same regardless of the size of the provider.

Most providers use the Openreach network, so they bring the broadband signal into your home using the same telephone exchanges, street cabinets and cables. In some cases, it's literally an identical service - John Lewis Broadband, for example, is actually supplied by Plusnet.

When it comes to faster services over 100Mb your options for smaller providers are more limited, but you still have some. Suppliers like Zen and Direct Save can offer packages with speeds up to 300Mb, while fibre-to-the-home (or full fibre as it often called) is dominated by niche players like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear. Don't assume that going with a smaller company will bring compromises.

Price

One of the best ways for smaller providers to compete is on price. When you compare the first year cost of all broadband providers, it's companies like Post Office, Shell Energy and NOW Broadband that come out as the best value. If you want to make a saving, it's worth checking out some of these names.

Smaller providers are also more likely to offer short term, 30-day contracts. You won't get these quite as cheap, and they often come with higher upfront costs. But if you need flexibility then they are ideal.

Support

If something goes wrong with your broadband you need to know that there's someone on hand to fix it. The level of support you can get varies massively across the industry. The big companies all give you a phone number to ring - on weekdays at least, if not always weekends - but it's a more mixed picture for the smaller suppliers. They range from NOW Broadband, whose support is through live online chat only, to John Lewis, whose phone help is available between 8am and 10pm, 24/7.

Of course, availability of support is not the same as quality. Take a look at our user satisfaction reports to see how happy customers are with each provider.

Help can come in other ways, too. A lot of big providers offer guarantees on speed and Wi-Fi coverage. BT, for instance, will send you a 4G router to keep you connected if your fibre broadband goes down, and also provide Wi-Fi Discs to ensure you get the fastest possible signal throughout your home (both at a small monthly extra cost).

Even without this you do have rights if your internet doesn't perform as well as you expected. You might be eligible for a refund, or even to leave your contract early without penalty.

Extras

One of the main plusses to choosing a big name provider is that you get more options. You can potentially save money on pay TV by bundling it with your broadband from Sky or Virgin Media, while most offer bundles including mobile deals as well. They also frequently give cash or free gifts to entice you to sign up.

These kinds of extras are much rarer from smaller suppliers, although they do exist. As an example, Shell Energy offer potential discounts for existing energy customers, as well as cheaper petrol through the Shell Go+ membership scheme.

Reputation and Reliability

This is the biggie. When you're considering providers like Virgin Media or Sky you can check our user reviews page and find thousands of ratings and comments from existing customers. Their satisfaction levels go right across the spectrum. You'll probably also have friends and family who use these providers and can give you an insight into what to expect.

With a smaller provider you'll find fewer reviews, and might be less likely to get a personal recommendation from someone. It can feel like a leap into the unknown. But don't be fooled into thinking that a less well established reputation is the same as a bad one. Zen Broadband currently top our user satisfaction ratings, while Direct Save rank above both BT and Sky!

Smaller providers may seem like a bit of an unknown quantity, and the lack of bundles is not going to work for everyone. Yet if you value speed and price then they are worth considering. The main thing is to do your research before you sign up so that you know exactly what you're getting.

Ready to start shopping for a broadband deal? Use our postcode checker to find what's available in your area now.

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Free Movie Streaming Sites

6 Ways to Stream Movies Legally for Free in the UK

Posted on 2020-03-27 18:23 in Features

If you've got some time on your hands and need to keep yourself entertained, you might be considering signing up to a few premium streaming services. But did you know that it's also possible to watch free movies online in the UK, legally?

Let's take a look at the best free streaming services, which you can watch in mobile apps, on streaming sticks, or on your smart TV.

1. Film4

If you haven't used Channel 4's All 4 streaming app lately you might have missed the fact that they added Film4 to the mix last November. The ad-supported service has up to around 30 movies available at any time, and the selection is refreshed frequently. There's plenty of great stuff on there for all tastes, whether you like Brit comedies, Hollywood blockbusters, or indie flicks.

2. BBC iPlayer

Like All 4, iPlayer also has a small selection of movies that is easily overlooked. Go beyond the boxsets of Line of Duty and Last Tango in Halifax, and you'll find 20 or more films that have recently been broadcast on the Beeb, across all genres. Don't bookmark them to watch later, because some only stay up for a week or so. But do make sure to check back regularly to see what else has been added.

3. My5

A few months ago My5, the streaming app for Channel 5, added a bunch of extra channels from the American internet TV service Pluto TV. Among them is Pluto TV Movies, which has over 200 films for you to watch. Many of them, it has to be said, are of the straight-to-DVD variety. But if there was ever a time to indulge in the dubious pleasures of films like Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus it's surely now!

4. Rakuten TV

Rakuten TV is available through a large number of smart TVs from the likes of LG, Samsung and Sony, as well as on smartphones and tablets, consoles, or in your web browser. The main part of the service lets you rent new releases, or buy and keep your favourites, while there's also more than 100 free movies for you to enjoy, just with the odd ad break here and there. It's a reasonable selection: not up to Netflix standards, obviously, but most people should be able to find something to keep them amused (and there's some free TV stuff for kids as well).

5. YouTube

YouTube is a pretty good source for movie streaming. Some films are there legally, others aren't (and tend to be removed quite quickly). Either way, finding them is the hardest part. Using the search filters can help, although you still need to be prepared to work your way through plenty of spam and junk. Thankfully, there are a few channels that share fully licensed movies, including Artflix and Viewster, as well as some third party websites that collate them for you, including:

6. Free Trials of Premium Services

Finally, don't forget to make sure you've used up all the available free trials from the big premium streaming services. Netflix is the obvious place to start. You get a 30-day trial, and if you've used the service before you can sign up again as long as you've got a different email address and payment card.

Amazon Prime Video also gives you a 30-day trial, and has lots of add-on subscription channels that also throw in a week for free. A NOW TV Movie Pass, with over a thousand films from Sky Cinema, gives you seven days for free, as does the new Disney+, which is the place to go for Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel movies.

Or if your taste is a little less mainstream, check out BFI Player for a 14-day trial as well as the hand-curated service MUBI, which gives you three months of streaming for the almost-free price of £1.

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Home Office Broadband

Need to work from home? Here's how to improve your broadband without disruption to service

Posted on 2020-03-20 17:42 in Features

With the extraordinary measures many of us are presently taking, more people than ever are finding themselves in the unexpected position of needing to work from home, possibly for the first time. You'll be relieved to know that UK broadband companies don't foresee any problems with extra demand from increased teleworking and more leisure time spent in the home, but you may still have some concerns. If you're finding that your home broadband isn't up to the needs of work from home, you may need to improve that situation fast.

Unfortunately, you'll often find that switching to a different provider is likely to take a while and cause a broadband outage in the process - not ideal when you need to get work done to a deadline. To help keep you online, we've got a few tips for improving your broadband with the minimum of disruption.

Try upgrading your broadband rather than switching first

Depending on what your job is, you may find your home broadband doesn't meet the demands that your office broadband can. You may still have a slower ADSL product as you've had no reason to upgrade before, and it's just not fast or stable enough for your work needs, such as video conference calls or uploading large files. Under normal circumstances, we'd recommend shopping around for a better deal, but between admin and engineering work, it takes time to get switched to a new provider, and you may want a more immediate fix.

In this case, we would recommend giving your current provider a call first to see if they can get you upgraded quickly. Chances are good that it will be a quicker process than switching, and your provider may be willing to do you a deal at the same time to keep you as a customer. Even if you're already on Fibre, you might find that the faster G.Fast and FTTP products are now available in your area. These technologies are rolling out so quickly that comparison websites may not even have the updated availability information yet!

Whether you're upgrading or switching, it's a good idea to get an estimate from your provider to find out how long the switch is likely to take. You can do this over the phone, or even live chat. This way you'll have an idea of when to expect any downtime, and also if you'll need to to use a backup option to tide you over, like a mobile broadband device. We'll go into more detail on that later in this article.

In the event that it's not any quicker to upgrade than it is to switch, you can use our Ofcom accredited postcode checker to find the deals available in your area.

Sign up for a 4G/5G home router for broadband supplied via the mobile network

Major mobile providers have recently started aiming products at the home broadband market using the 4G mobile network (and 5G where it's available), and the speeds can be faster than you'd think, even in areas with only a 3G signal. This is especially useful for workers in rural areas who would really benefit from a speed boost that they just can't currently expect to achieve with landline brodband providers.

One of the biggest advantages to this in the current situation is that there's usually nothing to install. Your router just needs to be sent out to you, and you can plug it in and away you go. Rather than wait weeks to get online, you should be sorted out within a couple of days.

You also have the option of keeping your current provider going at the same time to make sure you're getting a get service before cancelling the old one. It's also worth checking to see if any of the 4G deals have a satisfaction period where you can get a refund without penalty in case the service isn't good enough for your needs.

The short of it is that if you get a decent phone signal, you should be fine. Even then, a small antenna installation outside your house may solve the problem. If this is solution you're interested in, we have a guide on 4G home broadband that explains everything in more detail, or you can jump straight to the available deals.

Make sure you have some kind of backup connection

While most home broadband providers will do their best to keep everything up and running, it's not unusual for there to be downtime at some point, even without unusual levels of demand. Normally you'd just get a bit annoyed, but when you're working from home, it prevents you from getting things done and, if you're self employed, can cost you money.

You may also find that it can take longer for home broadband problems to be fixed. Businesses pay for a more robust connection with a responsive support team on call to get problems fixed as soon as possible. Home broadband doesn't have that level of support, and in a worst case scenario you could go for days waiting for a problem to be fixed.

Because of this, we really recommend that you have some kind of backup plan in place, and a mobile broadband device (be it a USB dongle or a pocket hotspot) can come in handy. If you're unlikely to use it for anything else, you don't even need a monthly contract. Most providers offer Pay As You Go bundles that come with a set amount of data pre-loaded. As with the 4G home router option, you'll usually get it within a couple of days of ordering, making it a quick fix. Some employers may also be happy to pay for this as a backup so you won't be left out of pocket.

There's also the option of settng up tethering on your phone and using it as a mobile wi-fi hotspot so you can log in to grab your email and any documents you need so you can work offline. Some providers offer this as standard, for others you may need to contact your provider to get them to enable tethering and talk you through setting it up.

Do you have a more demanding job than home broadband can cope with?

You might have a job where upload speeds are important, such as creating and uploading video content. Or perhaps you need to participate in important conferance calls where it's vital you have a stable connection. If this is the case, home broadband might not cut it, and you'll need to look into other options. Your first port of call will be to see what your current provider can offer you. You won't be alone in this, and you may find that your provider is putting in contingency plans. You may also find they have simple upgrade options for home workers. For example, Virgin Media customers can pay an extra £9.99 a month to get HomeWorks, which are some extra services to make working form home easier, including priority support and security tune-ups.

If your provider isn't able to help you out, a more robust home office or small business package might be worth paying extra for. These packages usually come with better, 24/7 customer support, static IP addresses, Virtual Private Network options, and priority traffic so you're not at the mercy of slowdowns due to heavy usage or because of general peak time congestion - everything you need for working from home.

We have a guide about Home Office Broadband and a list of some of the more well-known suppliers on our Business Broadband Guide.

Still need some advice?

If you want to discuss switching broadband our impartial advisors are on hand to help. Give us a call on 0800 083 0426, or you can arrange for us to call you if it's more convenient. We're open from 9am to 8pm weekdays, and 9am to 6pm on Saturdays.

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Landline telephone

Can you get broadband without a phone line?

Posted on 2020-03-13 17:32 in Features

If you're anything like us, most of your landline calls these days come from salespeople, spammers and scammers.

Most real calls are now handled on our mobiles, and we only have a landline because we need it for broadband.

But do we need actually need a phone line, or can we get broadband without one?

How to get broadband without a phone line

In short, yes, you can get broadband without a phone line, but your choices are limited.

Most UK providers work on the BT-owned Openreach network, which carries the broadband signal into your home via the old copper telephone wires. This is true even with fibre, where the fibre cables only run as far as your nearest street cabinet. A working phone line is a must with any of these providers, which include the likes of BT, Sky, EE, Plusnet and many more.

To get broadband without a phone line, then, you need to choose a provider that doesn't use Openreach. The biggest of these is Virgin Media.

Virgin use their own cable infrastructure that's totally separate from the phone network. When you get it installed an engineer runs a cable from a connection point on the pavement, to a wall box they attach to the outside of your house. This also happens to be why Virgin can offer faster speeds, since the coaxial cables they use for this are a lot more efficient than copper wires.

You can still get a phone line with Virgin if you want one, and you can usually keep your number, too. But if you don't need it, you don't have to have it.

Virgin Media broadband is available to over half the UK. Use our postcode checker to see if you can get it where you are.

Other than Virgin, you've got two options.

One is to use a fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) provider. These run the fibre cables right up to your house, bypassing the need to use the existing phone network. These services are a lot faster, providing speeds of up to 1Gb. However, they aren't widely available: the Government has pledged to invest £5 billion in extending this "full-fibre" network nationwide, but until then it's mostly accessible only to new build areas and apartment blocks.

Full-fibre is available from smaller names like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear, and big brands like Vodafone. A landline isn't included at all with these services, so if you need one you'll have to acquire it separately through a different provider. Full-fibre suppliers usually offer a VOIP calls package, which gives you a phone number and allows you to make landline-equivalent calls over the internet. Of course, if your internet goes down so does your phone service.

The other option to look at for broadband without a phone line is mobile broadband. Most of the major mobile networks offer broadband plans over their 4G and 5G networks specifically for home use. They often come with data limits and can be more expensive, so aren't for everyone. But they are worth looking at.

Got a phone line? You don't need a phone

It has to be said that there's no price benefit to choosing broadband without a phone line. The charge for line rental is now built into the total price of your broadband package, and it doesn't work out any more expensive to take this route than going landline-free.

So if Virgin or FTTH providers are off limits to you, or you'd rather pick from a larger number of suppliers, feel free to shop around for the best broadband deals.

You will need a phone line for these other providers, and if you're switching away from Virgin and don't already have an active line installed you'll need to get that sorted first. Suppliers will take care of it for you when you sign up, and you can expect to pay extra for it. This can be anything up to around £60, depending on the provider and what deal you're signing up to.

But remember that just because you need a phone line, it doesn't mean you have to use it.

If it's a brand new line and no-one's got your number, just don't plug in a phone and you can forget it's there. If people do have your number, leave a phone connected for incoming calls only.

Keep this in mind when you sign up to a broadband plan. Most providers offer an optional calls package, giving you a range of anytime, evening, weekend or international calls for a flat rate. Make sure you need this before you sign up to it; it's an easy way to add an extra £5 or £10 a month to your bill without any real benefit. If you normally have leftover minutes on your mobile plan you'll probably be better off sticking with that instead.

Ready to shop for broadband with or without a phone line? Check out the latest deals now.

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Online privacy

Protect your privacy online

Posted on 2020-03-02 13:39 in Features

While everyone knows about the importance of online security, online privacy is rarely treated with quite the same level of urgency.

It's probably that strange old "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" mindset, coupled with the fact that most of us are happy to trade a little personal info in return for some cool, free stuff. Who among us is willing to give up on YouTube or Google Maps?

But there's complacency in this thinking. Your personal data is incredibly valuable. Ad companies want to use it to sell you things, politicians can use it to manipulate the way you vote, and if the services that harvest it ever get breached you can be left vulnerable to scams or identity theft.

Assuming you don't want to just shut down your Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft accounts, what can you do to protect your privacy? Here's a few simple changes you can make today.

Review your search and social accounts' settings

Chances are, when you first set up your Google, Facebook and other accounts you took a quick glance over the privacy settings and then never thought about it again. These companies harvest massive amounts of data on you, but with growing concerns about what they collect and how they use it, they've all introduced new privacy controls. It's time for another look.

  • Google (including YouTube). By default Google stores all of your activity forever. But if you delve into the Data & Personalisation section of your account you can set it to automatically delete any data from apps and searches, location history, and YouTube activity that's more than three months old. This lets you keep Google's clever personalised results, but doesn't let them keep a record on your going back a decade a more.
  • Facebook. It's much harder to lock down Facebook as they track you online even if you don't have an account. However, the new Off-Facebook Activity feature gives you a little control. It lets you see which companies have been tracking you and sending data to Facebook, and lets you "disconnect" it from your account - the data doesn't get deleted, but does get anonymised. You just have to remember to do it manually.
  • Twitter. In Twitter, you should turn off the Personalization and Data feature, which allows the service to infer information about who you are based on your activity and then share it all with advertisers.

The same kinds of settings will be required for your other social sites and services, you can always search the web for the service's name and 'privacy controls' to get an up to date step by step guide for whichever site or app you're using.

Whatever services you use, it's worth taking a few minutes to review your account to make sure you aren't giving away too much information.

Consider an alternative search provider

Google isn't your only choice for searches. There are other search providers, like DuckDuckGo, Qwant or StartPage, that have a strong focus on your privacy, promising searches with no tracking or ad targeting.

Of course you'll have to balance the privacy benefits of not being tracked at all over the possible loss of quality in search results as it won't have any idea of who you are, where you are or what your interests are - all cues that Google uses to improve the quality and relevance of searches.

Our advice is to try one of the many privacy focused search engines available, and see if you feel you're getting less useful results. If you're still happy with the search experience then set your choice as your browser's new default search provider.

Don't overshare information

If you're a keen social media user it can be easy to get sucked into sharing too much information without even realising. A lot of the stuff you post, including pictures, may seem pretty harmless, but it builds up to quite the profile over time, and tends to stay online for many years. Something you're happy to share today may be something you'll regret in the future.

And it's not just about you - make sure you don't post things your kids don't want the world to see either. (For more on how to protect your children online, see our guide on how to set up parental controls.)

It can also be a security issue. Things like your birthday, schools you attended, pets names and so on are commonly used as security questions by banks. You don't really want to be putting all this info out there publicly for anyone to see.

Lock down your browser

It's hard to avoid being tracked as you travel round the web, but there are a few simple steps you can take to limit the extent to which companies can follow you.

One of the main ways companies track you is by using cookies. These are small text files stored on your computer or phone that are used to identify you. Most web browsers, including Chrome and Microsoft Edge, let you block cookies from third parties, making it harder for random ad companies to follow you from site to site.

Also, use the private browsing mode whenever you don't want to be tracked. This doesn't hide your online activity, but it does let you browse somewhat anonymously - you won't get logged in to sites, and cookies will be disabled.

For the best protection try a browser plugin like Privacy Badger or DuckDuckGo's Chrome privacy plugin. These automatically block a lot of the known tracking services, and learn as they go. These can be fantastic tools for letting you browse in peace.

Or use a different browser altogether

Around two-thirds of all internet users use Google Chrome as their browser on a desktop or laptop, and it's also the default on most Android smartphones. It gives Google access to a massive amount of data on your activities, and is also pretty limited in its all-round privacy options.

If you want to try and cut down on how much companies know about you, an easy solution is to change to a different browser. Either Firefox or Brave would be a great choice, although there are many more options. Both come with a huge range of privacy controls baked in, and block over 2000 separate trackers, including Facebook. They also work on your Android or iOS phone.

Beware apps that hoover up your data

Smartphone apps can rank among the biggest invaders of our privacy. They often grab as much personal data as they can - your age, your location, your phone number, what other apps you use, and a whole lot more - without you knowing, and without it being obvious why they need it. Some companies might then share this data with Facebook, even if you aren't logged in to your account, and others might even sell it.

Always check the permissions an app asks for before you install it, and decide whether the permission is appropriate. Why does that wallpaper app need to know your location, and does that game really need to access your camera? Leaky apps are a bigger problem on Android phones, but don't assume you're off the hook if you're an iPhone user. Research suggests nearly 40% of iOS apps make sketchy permissions requests.

Use a VPN and other security tools

There's more you can do to safeguard your privacy. Make sure the websites you visit are secure: the address should begin with https and your browser should display a little padlock symbol in the address bar. You can use a VPN to encrypt and anonymise your connection to the internet so that your broadband provider isn't able to log meta data from your online activities. Also, use secure messaging apps like Telegram or WhatsApp for your private chats, although do bear in mind that WhatsApp - along with Instagram - are owned by Facebook.

Ultimately, managing your privacy does involve a bit of compromise. It's impossible to go fully off the radar without completely changing the way you use the internet. But these few tweaks can certainly help, and they'll also make you more aware of exactly what you're putting online, who's going to see it, and how they're going to use it.

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Public Wi-Fi

How to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi

Posted on 2020-02-07 14:32 in Features

From supermarkets to shopping centres, airports to train stations, public Wi-Fi is everywhere. It's convenient and very often free. What's not to love?

Unfortunately, using a public Wi-Fi hotspot does carry risks. In fact, without taking a few precautions you could have your data intercepted, login or bank details stolen, or see your computer infected with malware.

How does this happen? One of the biggest threats is something called a man-in-the-middle attack. This is where hackers are able to exploit vulnerabilities on a network to position themselves between you and the Wi-Fi hotspot, enabling them to snoop on your activities or even divert you to fake websites where they can steal your data. You won't even notice it's happening.

Public Wi-Fi can also potentially be used to distribute viruses and other malware to connected devices. And with the rise in the number of public hotspots, some of the hotspots themselves may even be wholly fake. They might present themselves as being connected to the coffee shop you're sat in, but are in fact created for malicious purposes.

These risks apply whether you're connected with a laptop, tablet or your phone.

Stay safe on public Wi-Fi

This is not to say that you shouldn't use public Wi-Fi at all. The good news is that by taking a few simple steps, and understanding the potential problems, you can remove most of the risk. Here are your public Wi-Fi dos and don'ts:

Don't just connect to a random hotspot. Don't be tempted to hop onto any old wireless network within range, make sure you know what it is first. Ideally, choose secure networks - password protected and possibly even paid - over free, open ones.

Make sure the hotspot is legit. Just because the hotspot is called "Hotel Wi-Fi" it doesn't mean it's an official service. Always check that you're connecting to the right network, and if you have to ask staff for the password or get it off a receipt or leaflet then that's even better.

Don't set your device to automatically connect. Make sure your devices aren't set to join open networks as they come within range.

Use a VPN for full protection. A VPN is a piece of software that encrypts and secures your connection to the internet. Even if someone does manage to intercept your data they won't be able to do anything with it. See our guide on why and how to use a VPN for more information.

Keep your devices up to date. This should go without saying, but make sure you install all available updates on your laptop and other devices. Use antivirus software and a firewall for extra security. Some broadband providers offer free antivirus tools for their users, so check to see if yours does.

Try to avoid logging in to sensitive sites. Here's the simplest way to stay safe on public Wi-Fi: just don't use it for anything important. If you need to check your bank account use the app on your phone instead, connected to your mobile network.

Keep an eye on your surroundings. It's not just virtual snoopers you need to watch out for. "Shoulder surfing" is a real thing - it's the most low-tech form of hacking, where someone literally watches over your shoulder as you type in your password.

Use mobile broadband. If you need to use the internet regularly when you're not at home or in the office, you might be better off signing up to a mobile broadband deal rather than relying on public services. Not only will it be much more secure, you're likely to find it faster and more reliable, too. Want to know more? Browse the best mobile broadband deals now.

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Online scam

How to spot an online scam

Posted on 2020-01-24 17:20 in Features

Online scams are a billion pound industry in the UK. Their number, type and sophistication are growing all the time.

You don't have to fall victim, though. So long as you know what to look for, and how to avoid them, you can go a long way towards keeping yourself - and your bank account - safe. Here's how to spot scam emails and websites.

  • It doesn't look professional. Typos and general bad English are a common sight in many online scams, and are an immediate warning that something is off.
  • It demands urgent action. A lot of scam emails try to frighten you into acting quickly, without thinking about what you're doing. These are often security-related - your Google account has been compromised, or the Inland Revenue is about to take you to court for an unpaid tax bill, and so on.
  • The contact was unexpected. Most email scams are not targeted, they're sent to thousands of people in the hope that someone will be snared. If you receive an email out of the blue, treat it with caution, or just delete it. Similarly, companies are unlikely to contact you by tracking you down on WhatsApp or some other random service.
  • They request personal information. No reputable business will ever ask you for sensitive personal information, especially bank details, passwords or PINs in an email.
  • The deal's too good to be true. The old adage: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don't be tempted by offers of free money, even if it's a tax rebate - a common scam itself.
  • They ask for unusual payment methods. You get a layer of protection when you pay for something by credit card or through a service like PayPal. Being asked to pay in an unusual way - through a bank transfer, bitcoin or even iTunes vouchers - is an immediate red flag.
  • It contains threats. Not all scams try to convince you they're innocent. Some are open attempts at extortion. An email might claim your webcam has been hacked and you've been spied on (spoiler alert: it hasn't). It might mention one of your old passwords or part of your phone number to make you feel even more vulnerable. Don't worry, most likely this has been leaked by some other service that was hacked and is now freely available online. Delete and move on.

How to avoid being scammed

Knowing what to look out for is the first step towards avoiding falling victim to a scam. On top of that there are a number of other steps you can take to keep yourself safe.

First of all, be suspicious. Simply being aware of the prevalence of online scams should help you continually question the emails you receive and the websites you visit. Don't give out passwords, PINs or other sensitive information because genuine companies will never ask for it. Keep an eye out for topical scams as well. When the holiday firm Thomas Cook went bust recently, a bogus website sprung up claiming to be able to help customers claim back their money.

Also, watch out for scams that start offline. While you're looking out for dodgy emails and websites, it's easy to be thrown off guard by approaches you weren't expecting. This could be a call from someone claiming to be from your broadband provider, or from Microsoft tech support, or from Amazon, or Visa. Or a text message from a courier asking you to re-arrange delivery of a package. All of which will lead you to either hand over your credit card details, or install remote access software that gives a scammer control of your computer. These can be extra hard to spot because caller ID can be spoofed to make it look as though the call is genuine.

Try to verify who has sent an email by looking at the address in both the From and Reply To fields, and also check the URL of any websites you visit. When you visit important sites like your bank, type the address directly into your browser or use a bookmark rather than clicking a link.

And try and use reputable sites when you're shopping, or at least check online reviews of a business before you hand over any money. There's a growing market for ticket scams, where a slick-looking website sells high priced concert tickets that don't actually exist.

Above all, exercise good PC health. Use anti-virus software (some broadband providers offer this for free). Don't re-use passwords. Check your online accounts regularly for any suspicious activity. Don't share too much personal information on social media, and restrict who can see it. And if you do encounter an attempted scam, always report it.

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Amazon Echo security and privacy

6 ways to improve your Amazon Echo security and privacy

Posted on 2020-01-17 18:43 in Features

"Alexa, tell me what's been the hottest gadget of the last few years."

The Amazon Echo range of smart speakers have been a smash hit. They're helping to usher in the next generation of consumer tech, where we can chat to our devices instead of being glued to their screens.

One of the things that makes them so popular is how easy to use they are. They're good to go straight out of the box. Yet even so, there's still a few tweaks you can make if you want to improve an Echo's security and your privacy.

1. Set up a PIN to prevent voice purchases

Alexa makes it easy to shop on Amazon. Maybe too easy. If you'd like to control who can purchase things on your Echo, or put an obstacle in the way of your impulse buys, you can. Sign in at alexa.amazon.co.uk and set up a four digit PIN.

To enter your PIN on an Amazon Echo you have to speak it out loud, so it's not exactly an uncrackable security system. Think of it more as a way to prevent accidental purchases. Alternatively, you can disable voice purchasing entirely. You'll still be able to add things to your cart, but you need to complete the purchase on your phone or laptop.

2. Change the wake word

The Echo leaps into action the moment it hears its name. It's mostly pretty great, but isn't ideal if you've got more than one of the devices in your house, and could become outright annoying if you happen to live with someone called Alexa.

Fortunately, you can change the wake word if you need to, via the app. You don't get to set it to literally any word you want, you have to pick it from an approved list. Your options include things like "Echo", "Amazon" or "Computer".

3. Delete your voice recordings from time to time

If you're concerned about the privacy implications of smart speakers, you can allay some of your fears by clearing out your Voice History from time to time. You can do this on either the app or the website, where you'll see transcripts of all the voice commands you've given to your Alexa device. By default, they'll remain on Amazon's servers forever, so it's a good idea to find and remove any that you don't want to keep (or just get rid of them all).

4. Protect your privacy

Here's a bonus tip for the tinfoil hat brigade. Your Echo only starts recording when you say the wake word, but it is listening all the time. If you aren't comfortable with that you can turn off voice activation entirely by pressing the microphone button. It'll stay off until you press it again (although it can be hard to tell if it's off). If you've got an Echo with a built-in camera, you might want to use the cover supplied to ensure there's no risk of surreptitious filming, too.

And to complete your privacy upgrade, head over to the Echo settings and deactivate the "Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features" option. This prevents any of your recordings being accessible to Amazon workers for research purposes.

5. Don't overuse Alexa Skills

Alexa Skills are little apps you can install to upgrade the functionality of your Amazon Echo. You can use them to control your thermostat, give you a workout, book an Uber, and much more. But whenever third party apps are involved there's a slight security risk.

We'd recommend giving the privacy policies of your chosen Skills a quick once over to make sure they aren't going to snaffle your data; try to stick to popular, well-rated Skills; and uninstall any that you no longer use.

6. Beef up your router's security

Finally, whenever you connect up a new device that's accessible to the outside world, it's a good idea to double check that your router's security is as sound as it could be. Take a look at our guide on how to secure your router for the full lowdown on keeping your home network safe.

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Online Security

Don't get hacked! Top tips for locking down all your online accounts

Posted on 2019-12-24 15:59 in Features

Passwords. Ugh! You use dozens of them every day, but do you really give any thought to how good they are? Are they actually keeping your accounts safe, or are they as secure as leaving a key under the doormat?

Online security can seem both complicated and boring, a lethal combination that means we don't take it as seriously as we should. Yet it doesn't have to be. With just a few simple steps you can lock down all your accounts in no time.

Don't re-use passwords on important accounts...

It's hard enough to remember five passwords, let along 50 or 500. That's why we all get lured into creating one decent password and using it over and over again. You've been told this before: it's a really bad idea.

Here's the problem. Online services get hacked all the time; they get infected with malware; sometimes they just go wrong. And it usually results in a data breach that exposes their users' info.

And is isn't just limited to small or obscure websites. Brands of all sizes and all kinds get hit - from TalkTalk to Teletext Holidays to Marriot Hotels. They've all leaked data at one time or another.

Very often it's email addresses and passwords that get exposed. They get posted (or sold) online where anyone can see them, for whatever reason. If your password happens to be among them, and you've re-used it on other sites, all your accounts on those sites are at risk.

You can check if your email address is associated with any data breaches at haveibeenpwned.com. If it has, make sure you didn't re-use the password associated with the breached account. And if you did, change them now, and make sure they're not on the list of most commonly used passwords.

...but you can on unimportant accounts

All that said, there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to re-use passwords, though we'd recommend tweaking them a little bit to include the initials of the site or service just to add an extra bit of security while still being easy to remember.

While you'll obviously want to lock down accounts that contain your personal or financial details, most of us use countless services and sites where security doesn't matter at all. We're thinking online forums, and other random services that you log into once to maybe ask a question or read an article, and then forget about.

For those that don't contain any kind of personal or finiancial information, and you wouldn't care if you lost access to them tomorrow, feel free to use and re-use simple passwords as much as you like. But you do need to be sure that these accounts don't have access to anything else, such as social media accounts, or display any information you don't want public, such as your email address.

Managing your online security is a hassle. By cutting the number of important passwords you need to track, you can make it just a little easier.

Try using a single sign in on unimportant sites

Chances are you have a Facebook and/or Google account. Both of these should be locked down with very secure passwords as they contain a lot of personal and probably financial details - you don't want anyone getting into them. Many sites allow you to create accounts that are essentially tied to your Facebook or Google account, which means you can securely sign in with those credentials without having to create a whole new account and generate yet another secure password. If your Facebook and Google accounts are secure, they should be, too, and in the event that they do get hacked, changing your Facebook and Google passwords means those other accounts are covered as well.

Think passphrase instead of password

wgW7!@G%^45P. That's what a secure password looks like. It mixes uppercase and lowercase, numbers and special characters, and is pretty well uncrackable. It's also impossible to remember (and incredibly annoying to type).

An easy to remember password is, by definition, a bad password. But there is a neat compromise. When it comes to passwords, it turns out that length can actually be more important than complexity. So instead of coming up with short but complex passwords, try using a passphrase instead.

What is a passphrase? It's a much longer, more memorable alternative. Just pick four or five random words - they need to be genuinely random, don't use song titles or a line from a book - and string them together. You'll find it a whole lot easier to remember, yet the length gives it its security.

Want a bit of extra security? Use some special characters between words. Not all sites allow this, but where they do, take advantage of it. 'ThisRandomPassphrase' can be harder to crack if it's changed to 'This&Random&Passphrase'. If you can remember something slightly more complicated, you can also switch out letters with numbers and symbols that resemble them. For example, replace 'a' with '@' or 'e' with '3', and you have 'This&R@ndom&P@ssphr@s3'. As long as you can remember your scheme, you're good to go.

Use a password manager

Wouldn't it be great if you only ever had to remember one password? It is possible. Many security experts recommend using a password manager, a piece of software that locks and encrypts all your login credentials in a single place. You only need to remember the master password - so make sure it's a good one.

When you use a password manager you don't have to worry about making passwords memorable, so they can be as complex as you like. Most of the tools will offer to generate them for you. As a handy extra, they'll also automatically fill in your details on websites and apps when you visit them.

The best password managers work across your desktop, laptop and phone. Among the ones we recommend are:

What about getting your browser to save your passwords instead? That's also safe up to a point. Browsers do encrypt passwords, although anyone who's got access to your laptop or phone will be able to use them without any further checks.

And the most low-tech password manager of all? A piece of paper, kept in a safe place. We wouldn't recommend it at work, but for many of us it'll be fine at home.

Set up two-factor authentication

Getting your passwords up to scratch is the first step to improving your online security. There's one other thing you should do to properly lock down your most important accounts: use two-factor authentication (2FA).

The techie name doesn't help, but the idea behind 2FA is really simple. When you try to log in to a website or app that has it enabled, you have to enter both your password and one other piece of information - usually a short code sent to your phone by text or to an app. What it means is that even if someone does get hold of your password, they still can't log in to your account unless they have physical access to your phone.

You've probably used it already. Any time a bank texts you a code in order to verify a payment you're making, it's an example of 2FA in action. You can activate 2FA on all your main accounts - Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal and so on - and you really should.

If given the choice, use an app rather than SMS, since it's more secure. Authy is the best app to use, and it's pretty easy to set up, too.

Keep it simple

Managing passwords is no-one's idea of a fun afternoon. But weigh it up against the thought of losing access to your email, or having someone get into your bank account, and you realise it's well worth doing. The tips above show that a good security policy is not only safer, it's simpler too. And reducing the number of passwords you have to remember has got to be a good thing, right?

For more advice on online security check out our guides to setting up parental controls on your broadband, and how and why you need to change your router's security settings.

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General Election 2019

General Election 2019: what are the parties' plans for broadband?

Posted on 2019-11-26 16:45 in News Features

As you might have noticed, there's an election coming up.

Obviously, broadband is not going to be one of the most important issues for most voters, yet it has played a surprisingly high profile role in the campaign so far, as parties use it as a way to show off their grand visions for Britain in the 2020s.

So what exactly are they promising? Fortunately, we've read the party manifestos so you don't have to. Here's what they're saying.

Conservatives broadband policy

"We intend to bring full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025.

"We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable."

The Tory policy is based on Boris Johnson's "full fibre for everyone by 2025" plan that he announced during his party leadership campaign, which we looked at back in August. The reaction at the time was that, while it was a nice idea, the timescale was just too ambitious.

No surprise, then, that the plan has been subtly tweaked. The manifesto now talks about "gigabit-capable" broadband rather than focussing wholly on fibre-to-the-home. This presumably includes Virgin Media's network, and maybe even 5G, as the rollout of that accelerates over the next five years.

The Tories have pledged £5 billion of funding to cover rural and other hard to reach areas. The rest of the estimated £30 billion will come through private investment.

Labour broadband policy

"Labour will deliver free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030.

"We will establish British Broadband, with two arms: British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and the British Broadband Service (BBS). We will bring the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership, with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work.

"BDI will roll out the remaining 90–92% of the full-fibre network, and acquire necessary access rights to existing assets. BBS will coordinate the delivery of free broadband in tranches as the full-fibre network is rolled out, beginning with the communities worst served by existing broadband networks. Taxation of multinationals, including tech giants, will pay for the operating costs of the public full-fibre network."

Labour have the most eye-catching policy by far, and either the most exciting or controversial depending on your point of view.

The first part is the renationalisation of Openreach, the BT-owned company that controls the UK's broadband infrastructure, and is part of their broader plan to bring water, the Post Office and the railways back under public control. They would then continue the rollout of the full-fibre network, starting with rural areas, with a target date of 2030. They've allocated four times as much money to this as the Tories, funded largely by taxes on the likes of Facebook and Google.

The pledge to provide free full-fibre broadband to everyone grabbed the headlines, but in truth it looks more like a long-term goal than a firm policy. There's no real detail and no acknowledgement of the ways the broadband landscape will change over the next decade. Plus, there will be at least two more general elections before that 2030 deadline.

So how viable is all of this, and what are the implications? Read our full analysis of Labour's broadband policy to find out.

Liberal Democrats broadband policy

"A programme of installing hyper-fast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK – with a particular focus on connecting rural areas.

"Reform building standards to ensure that all new homes built from 2022 have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.

"Prioritise small and medium-sized businesses in the rollout of hyper-fast broadband.

"Ensure that all households and businesses have access to superfast broadband (30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload). Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects."

The Lib Dems' main broadband policy - to install a hyperfast network, with an emphasis on rural areas - is similar to what the two biggest parties are promising. It isn't costed, though, and presumably has an open ended timetable given the nature of two of their other more interesting policies: ensuring that new homes can get ultrafast (not hyperfast) broadband, and the guarantee that everyone will get at least 30Mb internet. This is an upgrade on the current 10Mb standard, although still a long way short of the gigabit speeds being promised elsewhere.

The Brexit Party broadband policy

"Partner with service providers to offer free base level domestic broadband in deprived regions and free Wi-Fi on all public transport."

The Brexit Party's stated aim in this election is to target Leave-voting seats in Labour strongholds. With this in mind, their one-sentence internet policy appears purely designed to give campaigners on the doorstep a way to counter support for Labour's own (and more ambitious) free broadband plan. That's about all we can say about it, since there's no detail to go on - "base level" isn't defined, and we don't know exactly who will get it, when, or how much the whole plan will cost.

The Green Party broadband policy

"Better connect rural communities through reliable broadband and mobile internet, delivered through councils who understand local connection needs.

"Roll out high speed broadband."

Nobody is going to vote for the Greens based on their broadband policy, and they know it. They've kept it short: like most other parties they've acknowledged the pressing need to upgrade the infrastructure in rural areas, and that's about it.

Confused about some of the issues discussed in these manifestos? Read more about the challenges of rural broadband, the different types of fibre broadband, and how 5G may soon be our fastest way to access the internet.

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