Digital Safety Check | Keeping Your Personal Data Secure in the Online World

February 24, 2020
Welcome 2020! While we’re entering a new decade, we may just be at the doorstep of the virtual age – bracing for our online footprint and digital dependency to increase beyond anything we thought possible even 20 years ago. Just imagine you have to pick between losing your smartphone or your wallet. If that’s a hard choice for your now, it’s likely going to get easier as adoption of digital wallets and smart home controls give our handheld devices even more power in our lives.

As apps and websites become more integrated with our personal data, the business of protecting that data grows. In fact, identity theft was the third most common complaint made to the FTC in 2018, and Javelin’s 2019 Identity Fraud Study identified 14.4 million people as victims of identity fraud. Major credit reporting company Experian notes that “effects of identity theft can last anywhere between a few days and several years, depending on the type of theft and how quickly you notice and address it.”

In this era of digital security breaches and identity and credit card theft, there’s no reason not to take extra precautions with your data. Here are six easy steps that will cost you just a few minutes up front, but save time, money, aggravation, and possibly your identity in the long run.

  1. Proactively manage your passwords. Whatever you do, don’t use the same password on every site, and please, don’t use 123456. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) found that 23.2 million accounts use this easy-to-crack code in 2019. Other easily hacked offenders include “qwerty”, “password” and your first name. Once you have a great password, consider writing your passwords, usernames, and security questions for each online account you have on paper and date them. Store this in a safe secure location and reference it as needed. A hard copy is harder to hack!
  1. Set up two-step verification. Two-step verification asks for more than just a password when you log in. Often you can choose from a phone or email prompt in addition to your password. Synching your phone with your accounts, and always opting-in to phone or email verification and alerts, will ensure you’re alerted if someone tries to log into your account from an unknown location or device.
  1. Choose good security questions. Using security questions and two-step phone authentication together is a strong barrier to having your accounts accessed by someone else. The security questions you choose should not be topics that can be guessed or researched about you online. Choose something that is memorable to you and will not change over time. The best security questions make it easy for you to authenticate yourself and very difficult for your account to be compromised.
  1. Don’t remember devices or stay logged into them. As tempting as it can be to click “remember this device” or have your computer or phone save a password, consider if someone stole your phone or gained access to your computer. The more accounts you stay logged into, and the more passwords that auto-fill, the less secure your data. Consider what accounts are worth staying logged into. Maybe you check your email on your phone a million times a day, or can’t imagine life without Instagram, but do you really need to automatically log into your banking account, PayPal, or Amazon account? One click and your money is spent!
  1. Monitor your credit. Protecting your identity doesn’t stop at keeping your accounts secure. You should also make sure you’re monitoring your credit. If someone gains access to your social security number and a few key data points (like your security questions) they can easily open credit cards, make large purchases, or even take out loans in your name without you knowing. Credit monitoring is free or very low cost and, done annually, can save you big. Put a reminder in your phone or calendar to check your credit once a year. Think of it like a doctor’s appointment for your credit and make it mandatory for your financial health.

Pro tip: If you’re the kind of person who has a ton of accounts to manage that have complicated passwords, consider a password manager. It’s worth noting that password managers have significant security and have been found to be safe as long as your personal devices aren’t storing your password for the password manager.

Making smart choices with your data online, regular financial health checks, and keeping the bigger picture in mind are great ways to keep your personal information safe. A few minutes here and there, and some simple precautions, will help you rest easy knowing you’ve done your due diligence regarding personal security in the digital age.

Sources: “20 ways to keep your Internet identity safe from hackers,” The Guardian; “How to keep your personal information secure,” Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information; “How to keep your identity safe online,” Forbes; “How hackable is your password?” CNN; “The worst passwords of 2018 show the need for better practices,” Forbes; “These are the world’s most hacked passwords – is yours on the list?” Forbes; “The worst passwords of 2019: They’re so weak even a novice hacker could crack them,” NBC News; “The worst passwords of 2019,” Yahoo; “The 7 best credit monitoring services of 2020,” The Balance; “10 things to do after your identity is stolen” US News; “What to know about the effects of identity theft,” Experian

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