In the past months, we’ve heard a lot about the “internet of things”, aka IOT. From the recent discoveries of misuse of social media accounts by foreign governments; computers and handheld devices being used to bully and harass at unprecedented levels; hackers breaching various companies to sell our personal data on the dark web, it’s made many people just throw in the towel. And while you can certainly reduce your electronic exposure by quitting Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. the truth is that computers run 99% of everything and therefore your vital information is still out there in the bits and bytes that make up our digital world.
So what can you do to protect your data and your identity? Let’s take a look at some best practices and tools available.
- Guard your social security number. Your social security number is yours for life and the one constant in your identity so protect it as if it were worth actual money because to a hacker it is. Did you know that most doctor’s office forms ask for your social security number, but they do not need it? When filling out any forms that request your SS# it is recommended that you leave it blank and ask why it’s required, how the office protects the information and who has access to the records. Oftentimes the forms are old and the field is there by default. If they say it’s used to track you down in the case of billing, offer just the last four digits of your social, this is often enough to find you.
- Toughen up those passwords. Did you know that the most popular password is STILL 123456?! That’s right, 1 in 6 (17%) of people use the easiest password for their digital lives! IT experts recommend that you use a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols with the maximum amount of characters allowed by the website. Do not choose words and numbers that would be easily decipherable based on your real life. Yes, your dog Deliah is totes adorbs, but if you make every password “DeliahIs#1”, someone trolling your social media accounts will have an excellent chance of guessing your favorite password. Consider using long, non-sensical phrases where you replace letters with numbers such as Ih8R3dWin3! Anyone checking out my social media would never guess that I hate red wine because I don’t, so this password is gold. Of course, you will want a different password for EVERY SINGLE account so you may want to keep these Fort Knox-esque passwords in a password keeper such as 1Password, LastPass or Apple’s iCloud Keychain. You should also check each of your accounts for the availability of two-factor authentication and turn it on. This usually will be an email or code sent via text that you need to enter as part of a two-step login process.
- Lock down your phone. Smartphones put the power of a computer right in your hands which is really convenient, but also creates a security risk should someone steal your phone. Make sure that your phone is set to lock after the shortest amount of time to keep prying eyes away from your personal information. It is recommended that you DO NOT save passwords for the various apps on your phone as this is an immediate entree into your personal and financial data. Use any enhanced security features available on your phone such as fingerprint scan access or two-factor authentication, and set up the “find my phone” feature for quick retrieval if it is lost or to wipe the phone completely if it is stolen. Check out the FCC website for a comprehensive smartphone security check-up.
- Do not shop online with your debit card. Your debit card is a direct link to your bank account(s) and therefore if someone steals your debit card number, they can wipe out your bank accounts. It’s always best to shop online using a credit card, because if the credit card is stolen and used, reporting the theft allows you to refute any illegal charges. If your debit card number is stolen, your money is gone and it’s almost impossible to get that back.
- Eliminate the pre-approved credit card offers that flood your mailbox. Opting out by calling 888-5-OPTOUT will eliminate these offers from showing up in your mail and the potential that someone steals these and applies for the card offered. You can also “freeze” your credit report. If you do not plan to apply for a credit card, mortgage, auto loan, etc. you can freeze your credit reporting through the big agencies (Experian & TransUnion charge $5-$10/freeze; Equifax is free). This means if someone tries to abscond with your identity and start applying for cars, credit cards and loans they will run into a brick wall when the various companies try to run the credit report needed. You will just need to remember to “unfreeze” yourself when it’s time to apply for a loan, mortgage, new job, etc. You can also set up fraud alerts to let you know when someone accesses your credit report.
As overwhelming and scary as hackers have made our electronic lives, there are still very real and powerful tools we have as consumers to protect ourselves, we just have to be willing to make the effort.