A beginner's guide to cybersecurity

Nine steps you can take to help secure your personal data.

Recently, Equifax announced a “cybersecurity incident” within its systems that could potentially impact approximately 143 million of its customers. This incident is a good reminder to all of us that we need to secure our personal information.  

Here are nine steps to consider when securing your personal data:

1. Monitor your financial accounts: Proactively check your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion for free by visiting the Annual Credit Report website. In addition to your credit report, regularly review your bank account and credit card transactions for fraudulent activity. 

2. Consider signing up for credit monitoring and/or identity theft monitoring: Different from checking your credit report, credit monitoring may notify you if someone is attempting to commit identity fraud in your name, such as registering for a new credit card or bank loan. Identity theft monitoring takes this one step further and may work on your behalf to resolve certain issues that arise. Examples of identity theft monitoring providers include Identity Guard and LifeLock. Note that credit and identity theft monitoring services can come with a fee, so it’s recommended to compare plans before selecting a provider. 

3. Research implementing a credit/security freeze: According to the Federal Trade Commission, a credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, “lets you restrict access to your credit report, which in turn makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. That’s because most creditors need to see your credit report before they approve a new account. If they can’t see your file, they may not extend the credit.” Applying this freeze does not affect your credit score. The challenge with applying this freeze is that you have to manually set it up with each credit bureau. It’s also worth noting, if you apply for a new loan or credit card, you have to either temporarily or permanently lift the freeze. 

4. Take a close look at every link before you click: Phishing scams occur when an attacker poses as a trusted source, like a popular charity, to try to obtain your personal information. When you get an email, for instance, that asks you to enter your credit card number, double check the validity of the requestor. Look to see if the URL in the email matches the URL on the company’s website. If you need to, call the company to verify the legitimacy of the request (Note: Your bank or credit card company will never ask you to enter your credit or debit card information in this way). 

5. Choose two-factor authentication whenever possible: Many password-protected websites allow you to enable an extra layer of protection for your account, in addition to your password. This is called two-factor authentication. This second layer of security can take several forms, such as asking a secondary question of your choice (like your pet’s name) to sending a text message to your cell phone to authorize use of your account. Two-factor authentication makes your accounts much harder to access.

6. Develop complex passwords: Ensure your passwords have at least 12 characters, use a combination of capital and lower case characters, have at least one number and include special characters (such as: %, $, !, etc.), if the system supports them. Do not reuse passwords on multiple systems – if one system gets compromised, reused passwords could provide access to other accounts. Also, keep your passwords private.

7. Increase your privacy settings on social media: According to Facebook, 600,000 of its accounts are compromised by attackers each day. In addition to avoiding links from websites you don’t recognize, make sure you set your privacy levels to their highest setting on all social media accounts. This will help keep illicit third parties from hacking your account and using it as a gateway to other personal information.

8. Keep your data safe on public Wi-Fi networks: Public Wi-Fi networks are frequent sources of hacks. Attackers can set up fake Wi-Fi networks that will give them access to your data. In addition, make sure you never set your phone to auto login to Wi-Fi hotspots and only log into networks from trusted providers.

9. Make sure your software is up-to-date: Ninety-nine percent of computers are vulnerable to attacks from security holes in software. Software companies try their best to keep their software security as up-to-date as possible, but in order to take advantage of this, you need to update your software as often as possible. Set up reminders on your computer so you can know when to update key pieces of software. Lastly, always back up your data. You never know when disaster may strike and you don’t want to lose your photos, music or work files.