Pop Quiz: When’s the last time you logged off of the device you’re using to read this article?
If you’re like most people, you probably can’t remember. We’re all pretty dependent on our smartphones and tablets these days, and they make it possible for us to do everything from planning a class reunion to depositing our paychecks. All those apps and features are marvelously convenient, but they also require that you put a great deal of your personal information out there — and it’s ripe for the taking. Sure, you have a password, but is it enough?
Whether you’re constantly looking at your smartphone or just use your laptop to catch up on emails from the grandkids, here’s what you need to know about keeping your devices secure and your online information safe.
The Consequences of Identity Theft
Most cyber thieves don’t care about logging into your social media accounts to troll your friends or breaking into your home to change the settings on your thermostat. What they really want is information. Once they know where you live, some of your hobbies and habits, or — worst of all — your social security number, they can use that information to pretend to be you online. That means using back-door security questions to change your passwords and get into your important accounts.
For example: Suppose your online bank account is set up to ask you a security question if you forget your password. If the question is about your favorite sports team, it doesn’t take a genius to check out your Facebook page for a look at who you were rooting for this season. If they use this information to get your password, they can empty your bank account quickly.
In addition to a direct financial hit, identity theft can lead to other issues for you, all of which are inconvenient at best and expensive at worst:
- Credit Card Fraud: Whether they use your existing account to make charges or open a new credit card using your personal information, this can be messy to resolve.
- Damage to Your Credit Score: Even if the credit card fraud department sides with you, late or missing payments may have already been reported to credit score agencies. This can cause damage to your credit score and make it difficult to get credit or loans in the future.
- Loss of Benefits: If someone maxes out your medical or retirement account without your knowledge, you could be shut out of the important benefits you need at the worst possible time.
- Legal Problems: Clearing up some identity theft issues is difficult and time consuming, resulting in legal hassles that may take months or years to resolve.
Best Cyber Security Practices for Daily Life
While most people tend to think of cyber security as something that only big businesses, banks and hospitals need to worry about, it’s also incredibly important for individuals to have a plan for keeping their data safe. You may not have your own server or send thousands of emails a day, but your online presence should still be as secure as possible to avoid the pitfalls of identity theft.
Understand the Threats
There are several ways bad guys can get into your computer to get your information — and make your online life miserable. Major threats to your devices include the following:
- Theft: Thieves can walk away with your physical device, taking your passwords and information with them.
- Email Scams: Anyone asking for money or personal information in an email — whether you know the sender or not — is a huge red flag. If someone’s asking for money or your account numbers, delete it immediately.
- Phishing: This is a more sophisticated email scam that looks like it’s from a company you do business with. It will ask you to submit passwords or account information for an update, driving you to a scam website or false form to gather your data.
- Viruses: These are often embedded in email attachments or files downloaded from the internet. They most often corrupt your computer with a slew of annoying popup ads.
- Trojan Horses: Similar to viruses, these programs are embedded in otherwise reliable downloads and can take over your computer to scan it for valuable information, hack your webcam and more.
How to Keep Your Devices Secure
- Never Leave Devices Unattended: If you leave your smartphone or laptop out at the coffee shop while you run to the restroom, you could lose more than just your device. Passwords and documents are all available for the taking, especially if you use the auto-fill function regularly. Keep your device on your body, and consider keeping them locked up safely when you’re away from home.
- Use Complex Passwords: It’s a good idea to use different passwords for everything. That way, if one is breached, the rest of your accounts are still safe. Choose a random combination of letters, numbers and symbols, and be sure to change your passwords regularly. If you write them down, keep that list under lock and key.
- Be Skeptical About Emails: Avoid clicking on links in an email, especially if you don’t know the sender. If you receive an email from a company asking for information, go directly to their website to log in to avoid phishing scams. Avoid clicking on any files or attachments that seem odd, especially if they end in a .exe, which could run a program that lets someone wreak havoc on your device.
- Install Security Software: Viruses and Trojan horse threats are constantly evolving, so one of your best bets is to keep up with them by installing a virus scanner and complete security system. These programs scan attachments and will warn you before downloading potential threats from the internet. It’s not enough just to buy it once, though — make sure you update your virus scanner regularly to stay on top of the latest threats.
- Check Your Privacy Settings: Check your web browser and all your devices to make sure you have the highest security settings enabled. Though at times this may feel bothersome if you have to take an extra step before opening a program or using a website, the security boost is in your best interest in the long run.
- Avoid Public Wi-Fi: Public Wi-Fi systems are a great way to surf the internet when you’re away from home, but you run the risk of using an open network that hackers can exploit. Don’t enter any sensitive passwords using public internet hotspots. Wait until you get home to check your bank account instead.
When you know what cyber security threats are out there, you’re in a much better position to protect yourself and your devices. By keeping your passwords a secret and following these tips for online safety, you should be able to enjoy the conveniences of the internet without worrying that your personal information will be put at risk. Happy surfing!