In the ever-expanding online and digitally connected world, privacy and security are gaining increasing attention. While the average American is beginning to recognize and understand the true value of their personal information, people also continue to express concerns about their privacy online. And that is especially true during the holiday season. And with tax time just around the corner, we all need to be especially vigilant.
Scammers, hackers and identity thieves are looking to steal your personal information – and your money. But there are simple steps you can take to help protect yourself, like keeping your computer software up-to-date and only give out your personal information only when you have a good reason.
Here are a few easy and practical steps you can take to protect your personal and financial information as you conduct your personal business online.
1. Understand and Use Security Software. Security software helps protect your computer against the digital threats which are prevalent online. Generally, your operating system will include security software or you can access free security software from well-known companies or Internet providers. Other options may have an annual licensing fee and offer more features. Essential tools include a firewall, virus/malware protection and file encryption if you keep sensitive documents on your computer. Security suites often come with firewall, anti-virus and anti-spam, parental controls and privacy protection. Don’t be fooled and buy security software offered as an unexpected pop-up ad on your computer or email. It’s likely from a scammer.
2. Set Security Software to Update Automatically. We’re all busy, especially at this time of year and it’s easy to neglect our computers. By allowing your security software to update automatically you remove one more thing to remember. Malware – malicious software – evolves constantly and your security software suite is updated routinely to keep pace.
3. Look for the “S” for Encrypted “https” Websites. When shopping or banking online, always look to see that the site uses encryption to protect your information. Look for https at the beginning of the web address. The “s” is for secure. Unencrypted sites begin with an http address. Additionally, make sure the https carries through on all pages, not just the sign-on page.
4. Use Strong Passwords. Use passwords of eight or more characters, mixing letters, numbers and special characters. Don’t use your name, birthdate or common words. Don’t use the same password for several accounts. Keep your password list in a secure place or use a password manager. Don’t share your password with anyone. Calls, texts or emails pretending to be from legitimate companies asking you to update your accounts or seeking personal financial information are generally scams.
5. Secure Your Wireless Network. A wireless network sends a signal through the air that allows you to connect to the Internet. If your home or business Wi-Fi is unsecured it also allows any computer within range to access your wireless and steal information from your computer. Criminals also can use your wireless to send spam or commit crimes that would be traced back to your account. Always encrypt your wireless. Generally, you must turn on this feature and create a password.
6. Be Cautious When Using Public Wireless Networks. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient but often not secure. Information you send though websites or mobile apps may be accessed by someone else. If a public Wi-Fi hotspot does not require a password, it probably is not secure. If you are transmitting sensitive information, look for the “s” in https in the website address to ensure that the information will be secure.
7. Don’t be Hooked by Phishing. Never reply to emails, texts or pop-up messages asking for your personal or financial information. One common trick by criminals is to impersonate a business such as your financial institution, asking you to update your account and providing a link. Never click on links even if they seem to be from organizations you trust. Go directly to the organization’s website. Legitimate businesses will not ask you to send sensitive information through unsecured channels.
Privacy and personal data security begins with a very simple message everyone using the Internet can understand and adopt: STOP. THINK. CONNECT. Take security and safety precautions, understand the consequences of your actions and behaviors online and enjoy the benefits of the Internet. Be a responsible Netizen as the Internet is everyone’s responsibility.