How to Protect Against Cybercrime

This week’s post makes a sharp U-turn from last week’s sublime contemplation of consciousness expansion. I’ve decided to address strategies for reducing one’s exposure to cybercrime.

We’re living in an era where more and more of our personal and professional lives are conducted on-line. We keep up with friends and family via text, email, and social networks. We shop on-line and enjoy the convenience of doorstep delivery. We manage our finances and investments via the web. We even interact with our healthcare providers via their medical information portals.

If we care about protecting our digital footprints, our personal information, and our financial resources, we need to take cybersecurity seriously. Here are the top 7 things I recommend to thwart cybercriminals.

cybersecurityONE: Equip your computers with firewalls, anti-virus protection, and spyware deterrents. Keep the software current and run partial- and full-system scans routinely. Don’t visit websites unless they are “approved” by the cybersecurity software.

TWO: Password management is a critical line of defense. Passwords should be at least 8 characters long and include elements from each of the following categories: upper case letter, lower case letter, number, and special character. Don’t include dictionary words, proper names, places, or other recognizable references. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.

For those of us with LOTS of login credentials, there are on-line services that will store individual site data and allow access via a master login-password. However, if that master account ever gets breached, the hacker will have access to all of those individual logins and passwords.

It would be lovely to delete logins/passwords from websites that are no longer in use. Unfortunately, most won’t let you do that. I’ve opted to change those passwords to random collections of 12 or more letters, numbers, and special characters. (Norton’s password generator helps!) It’s highly unlikely these passwords would ever be hacked, and inactive accounts tend to purged… eventually.

THREE: Manage email with care. Don’t open mail from sources that aren’t familiar. Avoid clicking on links embedded in emails unless you really trust the sender. Even then, take note of the URL on the lower part of your screen as you hover over the link before you click to ensure that it’s legitimate. Don’t open executable files transmitted as attachments even from a “safe” source. Don’t send sensitive information in the body of an email or in an attachment. Email is a lot like sending a post card by mail but with many more “eyes” lurking around to read the contents.

FOUR: Never provide personal information to unknown callers or email senders. Be especially wary of folks who claim to be computer support personnel, government representatives, or financial services providers. They like to create a sense of urgency and panic as incentive to get wary consumers to let their guards down.

FIVE: Check credit reports periodically. Each of the three major credit bureaus provides a free copy of your credit report annually. These reports tend to cover the same information. As such, you can ask for a report from 1 of the 3 bureaus every 4 months or so and keep a regular watch on your credit. Report unusual entries immediately.

We made the decision to place a “freeze” on all of our credit reports. We were among the millions of people whose sensitive information had been compromised by the Equifax breach. While that prevents us from gaining new credit without lifting the freeze, it protects us from unauthorized access by persons of nefarious intent. And it’s not that big a deal to “unfreeze” the accounts.

SIX: Wherever possible, delete credit card information from on-line accounts. If the vendor’s security measures get breached, credit card data joins all the other personally identifiable information to which the cybercriminal gains access. Several big name companies have already fallen prey to such attacks. When I place orders on-line, I cycle back to my account profile and delete the credit card information once I’ve received confirmation that the order has been processed.

SEVEN: Reconcile individual credit card slips against the monthly bill. Make sure there are no unexpected entries that suggest the presence of a third party with unauthorized access to the account. This review also helps answer the question: On what am I spending all my money?