This post appeared as a guest blog on the Family Online Safety Institute site on September 24, 2015.
It's easy to get discouraged about data security. With news of a new data breach practically every day -- often affecting thousands or even millions of consumers -- you may feel like throwing up your hands in frustration. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to preventing the harm that stems from data breach incidents, but you can reduce your risk by getting educated and taking some fairly simple steps to better protect your personal information.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s practically impossible to 100% protect your personal information from cyberthieves. So, short of completely unplugging from the digital economy, what’s a consumer to do? Here are five simple steps that YOU can take to make life harder for the hackers.
#1 - Don’t make life any easier than it needs to be for crooks
Keep your digital hygiene up to snuff. That means installing software updates, especially for your Web browser and operating system but also for your antivirus and other Internet-connected apps and programs. Cyberthieves know that many consumers don’t keep their software up to date, so they take advantage of known vulnerabilities to attack out-of-date computers.
#2 - Use strong, unique passwords
Cybercrooks count on consumers re-using the same email/password combination password across multiple websites. Because of this, if crooks hack the user data for one website, they quickly use those same email address + password combinations at other sites to try increase their access. You can help reduce this risk by using unique passwords at different websites. A password manager can be an invaluable tool in helping create strong, unique passwords without having to go through the hassle of trying to remember them all.
#3 - Take advantage of multi-factor authentication, especially for your primary email account
With multi-factor authentication (also known as two-factor authentication, MFA or TFA), you’ll add an additional layer of defense. Instead of just needing an email address and password, crooks will need access to another device - usually your cell phone - in order to access your sensitive accounts. Many online services currently offer MFA (here’s a handy list), so be sure to take advantage of it, especially for your primary email service.
#4 - Check your credit report regularly
Even with the best online security, fraud can still happen. Make sure to pull your credit report regularly and dispute any suspicious activity, such as lines of credit being opened that you don’t recognize. By law, consumers can access their credit report for free once per year from each of the major credit reporting bureaus at https://www.annualcreditreport.com. You may also want to consider putting a fraud alert or even a credit freeze on your credit reports.
#5 - If you suspect identity theft, act quickly!
ID thieves can do immense damage to your credit, potentially costing you thousands of dollars in higher interest rates, lost job opportunities and delayed tax refunds (just to name a few potential harms). If you think that there’s something fishy with your credit report or you receive another warning of ID theft, take action sooner rather than later. The Federal Trade Commission has a great step by step guide for recovering from ID theft at www.identitytheft.gov.
BONUS - Get educated about other tools to help reduce your data security risk! - The National Consumers League is a proud partner of AT&T’s DigitalYou campaign. They offer great tips for protecting your privacy and security and useful tools for Internet newbies, young people, parents and people with disabilities. Check it out!