Consumer Tips: Keep Your Online Information Safe

Knowledge is power. That was the main take away from NAR’s panel on cyber security, “Protecting Yourself, Your Agents and Your Business: Taking Cyber Security Seriously,” which featured advice from experts on how small businesses and individuals can protect themselves from cybercrime.

“Headlines over the last few months show that cybercrime is a global problem,” said Jessica Edgerton, NAR associate counsel. “What we might not be aware of at this time is that it is not just government agencies and banks that are the target.”

By 2019, experts estimate that the global cost of cybercrime will reach more than $2 trillion dollars annually, almost four times the cost estimated in 2015. With the most recent ransomware attacks seen around the globe, and financial information hacks at companies as varied as Target and Playstation to DocuSign, consumers need to be educated and vigilant about protecting their online world.

“Beyond setting your computer on fire and burying it in your backyard, perfect security does not exist,” said Edgerton. “But don’t freak out! What you can do is be proactive, be educated and use the tools and resources at your disposal to protect yourself.”

Here are some tips, tricks and practical applications that consumers can use to keep themselves – and their personal and financial information – safe online.

 Security lock on white computer keyboard - computer security breach concept

Think Before You Click. An email appears in your inbox with an attachment or a link, and you don’t recognize the sender, but it looks legitimate, so you click on it anyway. You have now opened your computer to keystroke malware, viruses, or ransomware. “Clicking with abandon is half the problem, if not more,” said Edgerton. If you don’t recognize the sender, never click on a link or attachment. If you recognize the sender but something about the email feels off or is asking for financial information, pick up the phone and call to confirm that the person actually sent the email.

Have a Good Password. Using a simple, uncomplicated password is similar to leaving the front door to your home unlocked. You are making it easy for criminals to walk right in and start stealing your stuff. If your password is ‘password’ stop reading right now and change it. ‘Passw0rd123’ is not any better. Your best bet is to have a password that is at least 12 characters, has a combination of capital and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols and is not related to you (i.e., a child or pet’s name, favorite sports team, etc.). If these rules sound difficult to keep track of, consider a free or low cost password manager.

(UPDATE: The latest recommendation for creating a secure password is to use a phrase. You should aim for a phrase that is 20 characters or more, spaces included. And while the phrase should be something you can easily remember, it should not be something that could be easily guessed by someone who knows basic things about you. For example, “My name is John Smith” is not a great password phrase.)

Keep Your Operating System Updated. When your computer says there is an operating system update or patch available, stop what you are doing and let the update run. It can be frustrating to halt work or have to turn the computer off, but these updates and patches can keep data safe and secure. The recent global ransomware WannaCry only worked on computers that had not downloaded a patch offered by Microsoft a few months earlier.  Thirty minutes without a computer is worth avoiding the nightmare of being hacked.

Do Not Shop on Unsecure Wi-Fi. The free Wi-Fi at Starbucks is a great way to check Twitter or stream some music or videos, but it is a horrible place to order something off Amazon or, even worse, send documents with personal identifying information. Computers connected to unsecure Wi-Fi open themselves to everyone else on the network. So if you wouldn’t feel comfortable shouting your credit card information across the room, you shouldn’t use it while on free internet.

Don’t Forget Your Phone. Smartphones are basically handheld computers, and they are just as vulnerable to hacking as your laptop. Beware of any unsolicited texts that contain links or ask for personal information as they can open the phone up to malware, and be judicious about the apps you download to your phone. If something does not seem, look or even feel right, don’t download or click on it. Also, just like with computers, do not ignore the operating system updates.

Stay secure!