Five Ways to Protect Your Personal Online Information

When it comes to the Internet and security of your financial and other personal information, everything is getting – well – more challenging. As the Internet stretches into almost every nook and cranny around the globe, we all become more connected and so do the opportunities for hackers and other online criminals to ply their trade and steal your sensitive content.

“As the number of connected ‘things’ in our lives expands rapidly, so too does the threat from unsecured devices,” states Ashley McAlpine, TMG Fraud Prevention Manager, in her 2017 security report.

Explaining the dangers lurking in what has been branded “The Internet of Things,” also referred to as IoT, McAlpine points out that there is now a search engine that can search 12 billion interconnected digital devices in the snap of a finger and determine where they are located and who is using them. “One researcher, curious to see how long it would take for a hacker to find his smart toaster, discovered an attack on his device less than a day after plugging it in,” she notes.

With this in mind, following are five ways that you can protect your information from online theft at a time when Internet security continues to be one of the biggest and most difficult challenges faced by financial institutions, service providers and consumers.

  1. First, according to online security experts, the password is one of the more effective lines of defense and should be treated with the importance that it deserves. Journalist Robert McGarvey, who writes extensively for financial publications, advises consumers to create more complex passwords that hackers can’t easily figure out.

“Passwords like ‘password’ and ‘123456’ just can’t be permitted,” he says. “User account passwords should be complex. This reduces the risk of a breach or hack that occurs. When applicable, passwords should have one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, one number, and one special character, and require a minimum of eight characters.”

  1. Along with maximum complexity of passwords, users/owners should quickly install device updates provided by companies such as Microsoft and Adobe. The downloads often contain so-called “patches” to combat known security vulnerabilities. Hackers are constantly finding ways to subvert popular computer programs with new and more complex viruses and these patches help reinforce the security wall.

Christopher Soghoian, a cyber consultant and former graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, said during an NPR interview that patches are critical to safeguarding your computer.

“There are many different tools that you can use to protect yourself from spyware and malware,” he explained. “The important thing is that you should be updating on a regular basis. If the software tells you it’s out of date, let it go and get the update. If you put it off for too long, you’re going to be vulnerable and exposed to potentially malicious software on the Internet.”

  1. In addition to passwords and updates, you need to protect your computer with security or anti-virus programs such as Norton and McAfee, two of many that are available online.

At their most basic level, they survey all the files on your hard and flash drives, checking for computer for viruses and other hazards and then safely quarantining them when found. Everything that comes into your computer should be thoroughly inspected. Although more expensive, the upper-tier security programs offer multiple layers of protection such as gauging the behavior of programs that are running on your computer and stop those that seem suspicious.

  1. Be patient. Consumers like technology to be fast and easy, but speed and simplicity don’t equal security. For this reason, Lois Hansen, Vice President, Product Development for CO-OP Financial Services, recommends against using social media sites for payments.

“Consumers need to stay away from any payment site that relaxes its authentication standards for the sake of speed and convenience,” she warns. “An online authentication process should be long and involved. If you are conducting a financial transaction online such as a purchase, proper authentication is well worth the time and effort from a security standpoint.”

  1. Finally, be careful where you use your computer or other digital device. Soghoian points out during the NPR interview that there are many vulnerabilities that consumers face with the online services they may be using outside of their personal space such as home, work or auto.

“If you’re at Starbucks, or you’re at school or a library and there’s an open Wi-Fi network, anyone sitting nearby you who’s using the right software on their laptop can actually pick out your information as it goes over the air,” he explained. “Now, they (hackers) may not get your exact password, but they’re going to get something similar that will let them log in to your Facebook account, to your Yahoo account, this kind of thing.”

In any case, if you are not careful, you are vulnerable.

And, you can reduce your vulnerability greatly by putting into practice the five simple – but often overlooked – security measures security experts almost universally recommend.