Not a week goes by that we do not hear a story about a computer hacking, a stolen identity, or any number of other cybercrimes. Cybercrimes are a relatively new brand of crime, and they are scary because the criminals always seem to be a few steps ahead of law enforcement, as technology constantly changes and evolves.
As we move more and more toward a digital society, wherein all of our computers, phones, tablets, and even cars are connected via cloud data services, we need to be mindful of safe online practices. The following are just a few of many tips you can implement to protect yourself online.
Use a different password for every account. It's difficult to keep track of your different passwords for e-mail, Facebook, online banking, or any number of other online accounts, but it's important to use different passwords for each one. If your password should ever be stolen, it's better that only one of your accounts is compromised, rather than all. While it's important to create a difficult passsword with a mixture of capital and lowercase letters with numbers, the majority of passwords are no longer stolen through guesswork or by computer programs that enter thousands of combinations per second; rather, they're stolen through elaborate password-recovery schemes. In some cases, your birth date, home address, or the last four digits of your credit card or social security number are all a hacker would need to reset your password; in these cases, a complicated and impossible-to-guess password makes no difference. (Which is a great reason why you shouldn't list your birth year on Facebook; it's okay to share your birthday, of course, but don't make your year of birth publicly available.)
As such, it's critical to keep different passwords for different accounts. There are great applications out there (such as Last Pass) that securely manage your different passwords, while requiring you to only memorize one password.
Enable two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication (also known as two-step verification) is a great tool that can cut off identity thieves even after they've stolen your passwords. It works like this: Say you sign up for a Gmail account, register your phone number along with other personal information, and enable two-factor authentication. From then on, every time you try to log into your Gmail account on a computer (or phone/tablet) for the first time, you'll first have to enter a secure alphanumeric code that's been sent to your phone as a text message. Without that code, you won't be allowed in. This means that, even if your password is stolen, the thief won't be able to access your e-mail because he or she doesn't know the code.
Most online accounts allow for two-factor authentication, including Google/Gmail, Yahoo/Yahoo Mail, Facebook (known as "Login Approval"... see instructions here), Amazon, Last Pass, and many, many others. It only takes a few minutes to ensure that your private information will be safe even if your password is stolen or guessed.
Back up everything. Precious family photos stored only on your computer's hard drive can be lost forever if your computer is hacked, or if it's destroyed by a fire or flood, or even if the computer simply crashes or breaks. You can protect yourself by backing up your data frequently. Experts recommend that you do this two different ways (hopefully together, to get the most security possible): By purchasing an external hard drive (available for under $100) and attaching it to your computer and running backup software; and by signing up for an online backup service such as Crash Plan or Carbonite (available for monthly plans typically under $10), so that your data is safe and secure off-site.
Beware of phishing and online scams. Phishing is a popular internet scam that can have devastating consequences on unsuspecting internet users. A popular version of the scam has somebody receiving an e-mail that appears to be from a web service they use--for example, Capital One's online banking service. The e-mail that contains a subject line that says something like, "Your account may have been compromised." Clicking a link in the e-mail will take the recipient to a web site that looks nearly identical to Capital One's web site, and he or she is then prompted to enter his or her login information. The site, however, is a "dummy site," and those running it have set it up as a way to steal people's banking information. It's important to pay attention to where you go online; if you've clicked a link, make sure it's taken you to a domain name that you recognize (CapitalOne.com, and not CapOneBanking.com, for example). Make sure e-mail greetings address you specifically rather than generically (though this is not a foolproof test); if an e-mail looks suspicious to you, copy its text and enter it into a Google search... if it's a scam, chances are you'll find out very quickly because various web communities act as watchdogs for scams and post warnings.
This is also true of many Craigslist ads; be wary of Craigslist ads that promise work from home, and if you are suspicious of any Craigslist ad, do the same method as above and copy the text of the ad into a Google search, and see if other internet users have flagged it as a scam.
Lagniappe: Enable spam filters in your e-mail. E-mail spam can be dangerous, but most of the time, it's simply annoying. Luckily, most popular webmail services have excellent spam filters built in. Gmail, in particular, is strong in this regard. But unwanted e-mail will always find a way through, if only occasionally. In these cases, it may be esaiest to block the unwanted sender. If, for example, you're constantly receiving messages from Papa John's advertising pizza specials, and you wish to no longer receive them, you can set up a filter that automatically deletes any e-mail you receive from the papajohns.com domain name. A Google search for setting up a filter on your webmail service of choice (Gmail, Hotmail/Outlook, Yahoo, AOL, etc.) will quickly explain how to do this simple process.
If you should have any other tips for keeping yourself safe on the internet, please post it in the comments section below, or feel free to contact the Law Office of John Redmann via Twitter @JohnRedmannATTY, Facebook, or by sending us an e-mail. We just received this great tip from a reader, for example: Never announce on Facebook that your family is going out of town, because it could announce to burglars that your house will be empty.
By staying informed about the many clever ways you protect yourself, you can have some peace of mind that you and your family's privacy online is secure.