One of my favorite things to do is to grab my laptop, walk to the coffee shop down the street from my apartment building, grab a table and sip some cappuccino while perusing Pinterest. One evening last week, I was getting ready to leave the coffee shop when a friend walked in. We started chatting, I got distracted, and when I finally left, I grabbed my purse — but not my laptop bag.
I realized this when I was about two blocks away from the coffee shop, so I sprinted back. As I ran, I was thinking furiously of all the information on that computer — my irreplaceable vacation photos, financial software with my checking account records, all my passwords. When I burst back into the shop I found that luckily, an honest customer had given my laptop to the barista, and my information was safe. Phew!
But, what if someone with less moral character had come across my laptop? I started looking into what criminals can do with your personal data and realized I was lucky I hadn’t become an identity theft victim. Scam artists often use stolen personal information, such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, PINs and other sensitive details — much of which was stored on my laptop — to commit various types of fraud, from taking out credit cards in a victim’s name to fraudulently using a stolen identity to get a job. According to a report by Javelin Strategy and Research, in 2011, about 28 million Americans became identity theft victims.
So, I learned some ways to help protect my digital life. One strategy is to put extra security layers in place. For example, back up your personal files to both an external hard drive and a paid cloud storage provider – should something happen to either copy, you will have a duplicate. Stronger passwords and data encryption are also important.
If you’re like me, and you haven’t really thought much about your digital security, there are some steps you may want to consider. Here are five things you can do right now to help stay safe:
Get security software that updates automatically. As the efforts to outmaneuver identity thieves evolve, so do the thieves’ tactics. OnGuardOnline.gov says one way to combat this is to make sure that the security software, operating system and browsers on your computer are up-to-date. You can usually set these programs to update automatically.
Set up an external drive for data storage. OnGuardOnline.gov suggests backing your computer data with an external hard drive. You may also want to consider printing off your most important files, such as financial documents and family photos, so if your digital copies are compromised, you’ll have hard copies. Store the drive or hard copies in a fireproof safe or emergency kit.
Put it in the cloud. Like your laptop, computer or smartphone, external hard drives are vulnerable to fire, flood or theft. PCMag.com suggests backing up your data to an online data storage server, also known as keeping it “in the cloud” — which means that it is protected no matter what happens to your home. A paid storage provider will archive all your files, which you can access via a user-friendly website. Not all cloud storage providers offer the same services, and not all are both Mac- and PC-friendly, so you’ll want to evaluate your specific needs when researching cloud storage providers.
Strengthen your passwords. Never use the same password for more than one account login. Be creative with your passwords. The Federal Trade Commission suggests thinking of a phrase or word and then substituting numbers and symbols for some of the letters.
Encrypt your data. Guard online transactions by using an encrypted, secure connection. Not sure if a site is encrypted? Check your browser’s status bar. A “lock” symbol means that your data can be safely exchanged. The FTC also warns that you should be careful when using public wireless (WiFi) networks; an unsecured network means anyone can see what data you send and receive (unless you are visiting an encrypted website). Save personal financial transactions, like checking a bank account balance, for secure networks.
My brief panic about my lost laptop has made me want to take measures to protect my information. Hopefully, you’ll learn from my mistake and plan ahead to keep your digital life safe from identity thieves.