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INSIDER SECRET: One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from data theft is to have a separate password for each of your accounts.
It seems as though every week another company discloses it was the victim of a cyber attack. Roughly a third of those attacks have occurred in the financial services and transportation industries, according to IBM security analysts, who recently reported that those industries were targeted in 32% of all attacks last year. Often, these data breaches aren’t discovered until months or years after the fact.
At this point, I assume that most of my sensitive information has already been leaked. The one thing I take comfort in is knowing that there is a huge amount of data out there and there can be safety in the crowd.
Although nothing is foolproof, here are five easy steps you can take to make sure you aren’t the low-hanging fruit the cyber thieves are looking for.
5 Easy Tips for Protecting Your Digital Information
It’s no surprise that your personal data is more vulnerable when you’re traveling. According to a Morning Consult & IBM Security survey, 70% of Americans engage in high-risk behaviors when they are on the road by connecting to public Wi-Fi.
If you really want to take your digital security to the extreme, I recommend listening to episode 130 of the Reply All podcast. The host helps a listener recover her stolen Instagram account and enlists the help of an expert to put together a bullet-proof plan to protect himself against hackers. It’s a fun podcast, but, unless you’re in a position to be specifically targeted by cyber criminals (you’re wealthy, famous or messing with the wrong people), you don’t need to go to those lengths. Instead, here are a few simple tips to protect yourself against data breaches:
1. Use Unique Passwords
When a company has a data leak, it can involve millions of records. No one is going to comb through that information by hand. Instead, hackers use programs to do what is known as “credential stuffing,” where they take your username and password from one website and test it on every other website imaginable.
This tactic is successful a small percentage of the time, but when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of accounts it can be incredibly lucrative. If you have the same password and username across multiple accounts, you’re at risk.
It can be a hassle to keep track of different usernames and passwords, especially when you’ve signed up for every airline and hotel loyalty program. I recommend using a password manager such as 1Password or Dashlane. I have been using LastPass for a few years and have had no problems.
I know what you’re thinking. What happens when the password manager gets hacked? First, all three of the password managers mentioned above keep your passwords encrypted using a master password they don’t know. They don’t send your password over the internet. Personally, I would trust my information with a company that specializes in digital security over a hotel or retail store.
Breaches do happen. In 2015, LastPass was hacked, but no passwords were compromised and the leak was discovered relatively quickly, compared to the Starwood-Marriott data breach which wasn’t discovered for years.
Nothing is perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Even if you don’t trust a password manager, you can keep track of your passwords the old-fashioned way — in a notebook.
2. Multi-factor Authentication
Whenever possible, enable multi-factor authentication on your accounts. This is usually easy to set up. The most common way is to add your phone number to your account so you can receive a special code via text or a call. You’ll be required to enter this code in addition to your password to access your account.
One thing to be aware of is that, when you’re traveling out of the country, you might not be able to receive texts or calls to your US number and that can make it difficult to access your email or other accounts. In the past, I’ve gotten around this by generating one-time-use backup codes for my email account.
3. Be Careful With Public Computers and Wi-Fi
When you log in to a public or unknown Wi-Fi network the information you send and access could be stolen. Whenever possible, avoid these networks and, at the very least, don’t log into bank accounts or make card payments on a public network.
Another great option is using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN. A VPN uses encryption to create a secure internet connection. Another benefit of a VPN is that you can use it to access region-restricted websites. I have a friend living overseas who uses a VPN so he can watch Netflix shows only available to US subscribers.
4. Pay With a Credit Card Instead of a Debit Card
I always pay with a travel rewards credit card when I can. If you’re using a debit card you should switch to a credit card. Sure, you can earn miles, points or cash back for your credit card purchases, but the real reason comes down to fraudulent charges.
If an unauthorized charge appears on your credit card, the bank will fight to get its money back; if fraud happens on your debit card, you’ll be the one fighting to get your money back.
I’ve had my fair share of fraudulent credit card charges over the years and, so far, every one of them has been instantly refunded by the bank.
5. Monitor Your Accounts or Freeze Your Credit
Keeping a no-annual-fee credit card open even if you rarely use it will increase the age of your account history and can help improve your credit score. Even if you’re not using it often, you should keep an eye on your account.
Years ago, I had an account I never used that had a fraudulent charge sitting on it for a few months because I never checked my card statements. This unpaid charge could have hurt my credit if I hadn’t eventually discovered it.
Another option is to freeze your credit reports so that creditors can’t access them. This makes it nearly impossible for thieves to open accounts in your name. When you’re ready to apply for a new account you can temporarily unfreeze your report or even unfreeze it for a specific creditor.
What do you do to keep your information safe online? Let me know in the comments below.
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