With so much of our lives, personal information and transactions online these days, news reports of hacking attacks -- which have been coming with increasing regularity -- can render us overwhelmed and helpless. But there are things you can do to protect your email, banking and social media accounts than just changing your passwords every other month.
Protect data against loss or theft
Maybe it happens at a bar late night, as you’re rushing through airport security to make your plane or just getting out of a cab.
“The number one way your information can be stolen is by leaving your devices or having them taken from you,” say Yahoo Tech reporter Dan Howley.
It’s not just passwords that may be saved on your devices. You could have tax information, important documents and personal photos that you wouldn’t want to see fall into the wrong hands.
Apps such as Lookout allow you to track down your devices if you lose them, at a cost of about $3 a month. A control panel accessible from any computer allows you to remotely lock your device or wipe its data.
Another option is LoJack, which allows the user to pinpoint the location of the lost device, wipe it and even generate a police report for the lost device. It's $119 for four years of service.
Use 2-step authentication
By now, you should know better than to use the same password for all your accounts or something too simple like Password123.
But using a clever password along with two-step authentication is the safest way to keep bad guys out of your most frequently-accessed accounts. Sites including Yahoo mail, Gmail, Twitter and Facebook offer a two-step sign-in process for added protection every time you log in, regardless of whether it's from a new computer or the device you use every day. After entering a password at login, the site requires a verification code sent to a mobile phone number or additional email address you’ve specified, before allowing you into the account.
“It’s good in case something like Facebook is hacked or someone figures out your password, username. They still need that confirmation code to get on,” says Howley. “Without that they can’t do anything.”
While it’s possible for an entire site to get hacked, it’s less likely that hacker will also have your cell phone.
Turn this feature on in your settings/preferences menu.
Update apps and software
How often do you get prompted to update your browser, smartphone apps or operating system? Well, software engineers aren’t tinkering away to create new versions just to annoy you. If you’re one of those people who have 17 app updates waiting, now might be a good time to do that.
“Your apps have certain holes in them that get found by hackers, then they’re reported on. If you don’t plug those holes, you're still at risk of getting hacked,” explains Howley.
Neglecting software updates can leave your devices vulnerable, and it only takes a few minutes to keep your device and information safe.
Surf safely in public
Using public wi-fi is one of the most dangerous things you can do with your devices, short of maybe surfing the web while going for a swim.
Hotels, coffee shops and even public parks offer free wi-fi, but while it’s convenient, it isn’t safe to shop, bank or even enter your email password. Everyone sharing that Internt connection with you can access your computer.
“Any one of those people can easily get into your computer and see exactly what you're doing,” Howley says. “They can see you type in your password for any number of programs or apps and steal that and use that against you.”
An alternative is to use a virtual private network (VPN) such as Private Internet Access for $7 a month or $40 a year. After connecting to a public wi-fi network, the VPN sends your connection to their servers, encrypting your online activity. It’s as safe as using your own (password protected) wireless network at home.
If you have to use a public computer in a library, cafe or even a friend’s house, browsing online using a "incognito" or "private" window will keep secret any information you enter or view. Popular browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari offer this feature.
Passwords and search histories aren’t saved, so you can close the window at the end of the session knowing no one will be posting to Facebook or transferring funds from your checking account after you’ve left.