Hackers (of the criminal variety) are a scary bunch—whether working as part of an organized unit or an idealist with a political agenda, they’ve got the knowledge and the power to access your most precious data. If hackers want to target a particular company, for example, they can find vast amounts of information on that company just by searching the web. They can then use that info to exploit weaknesses in the company’s security, which in turn puts the data you’ve entrusted to that company in jeopardy.
Bad guys, beware. We’ve got 10 ways to beat you.
- Update your OS and other software frequently, if not automatically. This keeps hackers from accessing your computer through vulnerabilities in outdated programs (which can be exploited by malware). For extra protection, enable Microsoft product updates so that the Office Suite will be updated at the same time. Consider retiring particularly susceptible software such as Java or Flash, especially as many sites and services continue to move away from them.
- Download up-to-date security programs, including anti-malware software with multiple technologies for protecting against spyware, ransomware, and exploits, as well as a firewall, if your OS didn’t come pre-packaged with it. (You’ll want to check if your OS has both firewall and antivirus built in and enabled by default, and whether those programs are compatible with additional cybersecurity software.)
- Destroy all traces of your personal info on hardware you plan on selling. Consider using d-ban to erase your hard drive. For those looking to pillage your recycled devices, this makes information much more difficult to recover. If the information you’d like to protect is critical enough, removing the platters where the information is stored then destroying them is the way to go.
- Do not use open Wi-Fi on your router; it makes it too easy for threat actors to steal your connection and download illegal files. Protect your Wi-Fi with an encrypted password, and consider refreshing your equipment every few years. Some routers have vulnerabilities that are never patched. Newer routers allow you to provide guests with segregated wireless access. Plus, they make frequent password changes easier.
- Speaking of passwords: password protect all of your devices, including your desktop, laptop, phone, smartwatch, tablet, camera, lawnmower…you get the idea. The ubiquity of mobile devices makes them especially vulnerable. Lock your phone and make the timeout fairly short. Use fingerprint lock for the iPhone and passkey or swipe for Android. “It’s easy to forget that mobile devices are essentially small computers that just happen to fit in your pocket and can be used as a phone,” says Jean-Philippe Taggart, Senior Security Researcher at Malwarebytes. “Your mobile device contains a veritable treasure trove of personal information and, once unlocked, can lead to devastating consequences.”
- Sensing a pattern here? Create difficult passwords, and never use the same ones across multiple services. If that’s as painful as a stake to a vampire’s heart, use a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. For extra hacker protection, ask about two-step authentication. Several services have only recently started to offer 2FA, and they require the user to initiate the process. Trust us, the extra friction is worth it. Two-factor authentication makes taking over an account that much more difficult, and on the flip side, much easier to reclaim should the worst happen.
- Come up with creative answers for your security questions. People can now figure out your mother’s maiden name or where you graduated from high school with a simple Google search. Consider answering like a crazy person. If Bank of America asks, “What was the name of your first boyfriend/girlfriend?” reply, “Your mom.” Just don’t forget that’s how you answered when they ask you again.
- Practice smart emailing. Phishing campaigns still exist, but cybercriminals have become much cleverer than that Nigerian prince who needs your money. Hover over links to see their actual URLs (as opposed to just seeing words in hyperlink text). Also, check to see if the email is really from the person or company claiming to have sent it. If you’re not sure, pay attention to awkward sentence construction and formatting. If something still seems fishy, do a quick search on the Internet for the subject line. Others may have been scammed and posted about it online.
- Some websites will ask you to sign in with a specific service to access features or post a comment. Ensure the login option isn’t a sneaky phish, and if you’re giving permission to an app to perform a task, ensure you know how to revoke access once you no longer need it. Old, abandoned connections from service to service are an easy way to see your main account compromised by spam.
- Keep sensitive data off the cloud. “No matter which way you cut it, data stored on the cloud doesn’t belong to you,” says Taggart. “There are very few cloud storage solutions that offer encryption for ‘data at rest.’ Use the cloud accordingly. If it’s important, don’t.”
Honorable mentions: Alarmist webpages announcing that there are “critical errors” on your computer are lies. Microsoft will never contact you in person to remove threats. These messages come from scammers, and if you allow them to remotely connect to your computer, they could try to steal your information and your money. If that’s not a Nightmare on Elm Street, then we don’t know what is.