On September 7, Equifax (the national credit agency company) announced that hackers had stolen records from its servers that contained personal information on 143 million Americans. A few weeks later, the company announced that the actual number was 145.5 million.
And recently, Yahoo announced that its original data breach in August 2013 didn’t affect 1 billion of its users, it actually affected 3 billion users – which was every Yahoo account that existed at that time.
Combined with other high-profile data breaches that have occurred (within the government and the private sector), we clearly have a massive data security problem in our country. The ugly truth is that, at least for now, there is no way to completely protect your personal online information and identity. However, there are some common-sense things you can do that will dramatically reduce your chances of being hacked, so long as you remain conscientious and vigilant in your efforts.
1. Monitor your credit
It’s a good idea to routinely check your credit to make sure no one has opened any unauthorized accounts in your name. All three of the national credit agencies provide free credit reports once a year and for a fee, they also provide a credit monitoring service. If you would prefer to avoid a fee, there are also free credit reports and free monitoring services available through other credit companies, of which CreditKarma is probably the best known.
2. Carefully review bank and credit card statements
This may sound like a no-brainer but too often people don’t carefully review their statements. If your bank or credit accounts have been hacked and fraudulent charges have been initiated, these are going to show up in those statements, so be sure to review them scrupulously.
3. Don’t be a spear phishing victim
Spear-phishing is the practice of sending emails from a seemingly known or trusted source in order to induce the recipient to reveal confidential information. Be very wary of opening any attachments that are embedded in an email because they might contain a virus that could wreak havoc on your files and personal information – even if the email seems to be from someone you know.
4. Different passwords for different accounts
This one is harder said than done but it’s important to have different passwords for different online accounts. For instance, the password you use for email should be different than the password you use to access your bank account. The reason is obvious – if an intruder successfully hacks one of your accounts, you don’t want to provide him with access to all your other accounts because you’ve used the same password for each.
5. Keep security software programs current
When one acquires a new computer, security software programs are typically provided free of charge, usually for 12 months. After that, one has to pay an annual subscription fee to keep the software current. Needless to say, pay the fee to keep your computer protected. There is a constant stream of new viruses being created everyday that are designed to maliciously attack your computer and steal your personal information. Don’t let that happen to you.
6. Beware of open public Wi-Fi connections
Many people are in the habit of going into their favorite coffee shop and accessing its Wi-Fi connection. If you do that, never conduct any sensitive personal business online. It’s possible that someone could be lurking there to intentionally capture your unencrypted information as it flies through the air from your computer to the router. Because it’s unencrypted data, anyone within range and with the right equipment can read it.
7. Invest in a shredder
Even though most of us have created and maintain a digital presence online, there is also a danger that sensitive personal information could be stolen from hard copy sources. Old credit and bank account statements, old utility bills, old credit card offers, old tax returns, or old receipts from previous purchases – all of them might contain personal information that should be protected. Don’t simply throw these documents in the trash – shred them first.
8. Sign up with the Do Not Call Registry
Slick scammers are not just online, they sometimes prey on people through the telephone. They will call people and try to extract personal information from them – date of birth, social security numbers, household income, etc. – any information they can use to help them create a fraudulent personal identity in your name.
9. Safeguard your social security number
Your social security number is your digital fingerprint for everything – whether you’re applying for a loan, credit or even a new job – it is the key number that provides access to everything else. Be very vigilant about protecting your number and make sure to never have it printed on your personal checks.
10. Do not leave mail unattended
If you’re going to be away for a few days or longer, make sure to have mail delivery to your home stopped. There are thieves who specifically target unattended mail boxes in order to steal your mail and all the personal information contained within it. Another option would be to stop mail delivery to your home permanently and have it delivered to a rented mailbox instead.
There are innumerable benefits and conveniences to participating in a digital environment – and at this point there’s no turning back – but we have to protect ourselves in this brave new world, and being cautious, aware and vigilant are the keys to your success.