One of your favorite things may be to grab your laptop, walk to your local coffee shop and sip some cappuccino while perusing the Internet. Imagine you’re getting ready to leave the coffee shop when a friend walks in. You both start chatting, you get distracted, and when you finally leave, you forget your laptop bag.
You realize this when you’re about two blocks away from the coffee shop, so you sprint back. As you run, you start thinking of all the information on that computer — your irreplaceable family photos, financial software with your checking account records, all your passwords. Scary thought, right?
Scam artists often use stolen personal information, such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, PINs and other sensitive details — much of which can be stored on your 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 2014, about 13 million Americans became identity theft victims.
You may not have thought much about your digital security, but here are five steps you can do right now to help stay safe:
As the efforts to outmaneuver identity thieves evolve, so do the thieves’ tactics. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says one way to help 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. This may help protect your computer from potential identity thieves taking advantage of bugs or any security holes in outdated software, systems or browsers.
The FTC also suggests backing up your computer data to an external hard drive. You may want to also 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 safe deposit box.
Like your laptop, tablet 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 may archive and encrypt your files, which you can access via a user-friendly website. Generally, these storage providers help protect your encrypted data from potential identity thieves hacking into it. Not all cloud storage providers offer the same services and security protocols, and not all are both Mac- and PC-friendly, so you’ll want to evaluate your specific needs when researching cloud storage providers.
Never use the same password for more than one account login. Be creative with your passwords. The FTC suggests thinking of a phrase or word and then substituting numbers and symbols for some of the letters.
Guard online transactions by using an encrypted, secure connection. Not sure if a website 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 (Wi-Fi) networks. These unsecured networks generally mean 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.
Proactive steps like these may help protect your personal information from getting into the hands of identity thieves.
Originally published March 27, 2013.