Each day people take a virtual trip through the internet to do their banking, make hotel reservations, shop for a new car, or engage in a myriad of other activities important to them.
It’s so routine that it’s easy to forget that you need to be just as careful about protecting yourself on those virtual journeys as you would on an actual one.
“Hackers are creative about dreaming up new ideas for stealing your identity, so it’s important that you stay vigilant even if you already have taken action to guard yourself and your data,” says Chris Hoose (www.choosenetworks.com), an IT consultant who works with small businesses.
Hoose says a few steps you can take to protect your identity include:
• Use a password manager. One problem with passwords is that people often use simple ones that are easy to remember, but also easy to hack. A password manager provides an encrypted database where you can store unique, long, complex passwords for each of your online accounts, and access them when you need them. “With a password manager, you can have better passwords that are harder to hack, and you don’t have to memorize them,” Hoose says.
• Do your online activities with a VPN. Worried that your online browsing will lead identity thieves right back to you? One solution, Hoose says, is a virtual private network (VPN), which lends you a temporary IP address and hides your true IP address from every website or email you connect with. “It also prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location,” he says. “You just need to remember to connect to it when you want to use it.” A VPN usually costs about $40 to $50 a year, he says.
• Be wary on social media. Most people check in on social media routinely to catch up on family news, connect with college buddies, or perhaps to share photos of a new puppy. Unfortunately, cyber thieves lurk in the background. “They know that social media platforms are an excellent source for personal information and information about your contacts, which makes identity theft that much easier for them,” Hoose says. To stay safe on social media, he suggests you check to see if you have already been compromised; avoid password reuse; update your security settings regularly; and limit your connections because the more you have, the more potential for a fraudulent or compromised account to send you a malicious link.
• Keep tabs on your credit report. One way to make sure no one has taken on debt in your name, and damaged your credit in the process, is to request a full credit report from any of the three major agencies: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. You can get a free copy from any of them through the site www.annualcreditreport.com. Also, it might be time to get off the mailing list for all those credit offers you receive that say you are pre-approved. “Those offers are a gold mine for identity thieves,” Hoose says. You can opt out of pre-approved credit offers by visiting www.OptOutPrescreen.com.
• Be sure to install anti-virus/malware software. Your first and best line of defense against identity theft on your computer remains anti-virus software and anti-malware software, Hoose says. When choosing one, he suggests making use of the trial period most companies offer. “That way you can try them out and decide which one works best for you,” he says.
“The more people try to foil identity thieves, the more sophisticated those thieves seem to get in their methods,” Hoose says. “But by being watchful and attentive, you can stay safe and enjoy your time online.”
Chris Hoose (www.choosenetworks.com) is the president of Choose Networks, an IT consulting firm for small businesses. Hoose started the company in 2001 to give large-scale solutions and support to businesses that can’t afford their own in-house IT department. He earned a Master of Information Systems Management from Friends University.