Suppose you saw a piece of used chewing gum sticking to the sidewalk.

Would you pick it up and put it in your mouth?

Probably not, eh?

Yet you might not be as picky about using a thumb drive on that same sidewalk.

You might even think, “Yay, I’ve got a new thumb drive!”

Or, maybe, being more charitable, you think, “Oh dear, someone lost their thumb drive. I need to look at the files so I can restore it to its rightful owner.”

Don’t do it, warns Dave Wolf, CEO of Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association.

That’s because that thumb drive, also called a USB drive, could corrupt your computer, sometimes deliberately. It could introduce malware to your device, destroying programs or allowing someone else to spy on your activity, even stealing passwords.

“Treat it like used chewing gum,” said Wolf, who won’t even accept free drives at conventions.

Thieves and mischief-makers have always existed, and Wolf’s warning is a good reminder that while locking our homes and cars is still important, so is blocking entrances to our data. After all, our family pictures, credit card and bank account numbers and half-finished novels are just as important as our jewelry and TVs.

Various entities have tested whether people will pick up used thumb drives and plug them into their computers. Google dropped thumb drives on a college campus and found that 45 to 98 percent of the time, users plugged them into their own devices, usually without taking precautions.

In 2011, a test at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that workers who found deliberately dropped thumb drives plugged them into their work computers more than half the time. Hopefully that message sank in.

Google advised caution especially when drives are tagged “Private,” as they might have been tagged that way specifically to pique curiosity.

Other warnings from Wolf:

  • All those fun free apps we can tap into. Various apps share your data with Facebook, including if you’re shopping for a house, what your blood pressure is and even when you ovulate, according to a February report in the Wall Street Journal.

“Would you get into a van that had free candy painted on it?” Wolf asks.

Nothing is free, he added. You either pay for it with privacy or time.

  • Don’t fight with strangers online. They could publish your name, phone number and other personal data online, a practice known as doxxing, which invites all kinds of cruelty. “It’s easy to be mean behind the screen,” he said.

Good practices, he said, involve surfing incognito and covering webcams.

“Don’t be so trusting,” he said.

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“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.