Essential Steps to Improve Your Cybersecurity

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Consider the potential results of a cybercriminal gaining access to your bank account or hacking into your home computer and stealing your sensitive personal information. How difficult would it be to recover from the loss of your savings? What would you do if you discovered that someone using your identity had secured loans in your name?

There are eight simple steps you can take to better protect your data, devices, and identity, thereby dramatically reducing the likelihood that you will become a victim. Not only will taking these steps increase security, but some may also result in improved performance of your phones, tablets, and computers by freeing up resources and allowing them to operate more efficiently.

Step 1 – Run malware protection and software updates
All of your devices should be running anti-malware protection applications set to automatically update and run periodic scans to identify and resolve vulnerabilities. Your devices’ operating systems should also be set to automatically check for, and install, updates. These updates often include security patches to resolve vulnerabilities that could otherwise be exploited.

Step 2 – Update and strengthen your login credentials
If you are using the same login credentials for multiple accounts, all it would take is one breach to put all of your accounts at risk. Ideally, you should use different passwords for every account. Those passwords should be complex and should not include words or names. They should include upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters and be no less than 10 characters in length. Consider using a password manager app. These apps will generate as many complex passwords as you need and remember them for you. You will not have to write them down, which isn’t a good idea, anyway.

If any of your accounts offer multi-factor authentication, take advantage of it. Typically, multi-factor logins would include a user name, password, and a PIN. The PIN is generally a four to six character series that you created or that is generated automatically and sent to you via text or email each time you log into the account.

Step 3 – Update settings to increase privacy and limit data collection
While you’re updating your account login credentials, check the privacy settings for those accounts. Also check these settings for the apps you use. When you set up accounts or install applications, you aren’t always given options to limit data sharing and protect your privacy. You may need to “opt out” by changing some default settings and that might require a little research. Run searches for privacy settings for the apps you use. You’ll likely find numerous articles written by privacy advocates that provide the step-by-step instructions you’ll need to find these settings and change them.

Step 4 – Limit the information provided and shared in your social media accounts
Oversharing on social media can provide criminals with information they can use to facilitate attacks. Avoid posting things like your birth date or those of your children, names of first or favorite pets, or other information that may be answers to common account security questions. Don’t post things like physical addresses, personal phone numbers, vacation plans, etc.

Know who you are communicating with. Cybercriminals often put together enough personal data about their targets to engage in impersonation scams wherein they claim to share interests or have mutual friends with their intended victims in order to gain their trust.

If you didn’t already do so in step 3, check your social media privacy settings. Make sure you aren’t publicly sharing information you shouldn’t. Remove images, videos, and other data if they are no longer needed. You may be surprised at what an accomplished con artist can do with seemingly innocuous data like this.

Step 5 – Uninstall apps and programs that you don’t use
Hackers find vulnerabilities in applications and exploit them, especially if they aren’t being regularly updated. Some applications collect and share user data from the devices on which they are installed. If you aren’t using an application, uninstall it. Not only will doing so reduce the possibility that your device or data will be compromised, but it will also free up storage space and possibly speed up device performance.

Step 6 – Clean up your email
If your email account is compromised, consider what information may be available to the hacker. Most people don’t use encrypted email services like Tutanota or ProtonMail, so they may have some sensitive data in, or attached to, old messages that would become readily available to the hacker. This could include dates of birth, driver’s license information, or even bank account or Social Security numbers. Including information like this in unencrypted messages is definitely not recommended. Including it and then leaving the messages in the mailbox indefinitely increases the risk. Occasionally review your old messages and delete those you no longer need. Consider using a free encrypted email service or using any encryption functionality available in your existing email application if you are sending sensitive data.

Step 7 – Get rid of old files on your hard drives
If you have any confidential data stored on your devices that doesn’t need to be there, get rid of it. If your device is lost, stolen, or hacked, this data could come back to haunt you. For example, you may have your last few years of tax returns on your laptop’s hard drive. You know what kind of sensitive information those contain. That type of data in the hands of an identity thief could lead to disastrous consequences. Consider purchasing an external hard drive that isn’t connected to your network and storing the sensitive data there rather than on your devices. Keep the external drive in a secure location.

Step 8 – Back up your data
If all else fails and your device is lost, stolen, compromised, or infected with malware, you’ll need to have backup copies of your important data. Smartphones typically have backup options available from service providers. Cloud backup services are also available for your personal computers. External hard drives with backup software already installed are relatively inexpensive. Depending on which solution you choose, you should have the option to schedule regular, automatic backups. These eliminate the need for you to remember to manually run them. If you really want to be sure that your data will be available for recovery if needed, consider backing it up to multiple locations and possibly keeping hard copies of things like tax returns.

In closing…
Cybercriminals seek out easy marks who fail to implement best practices to secure their data, accounts, devices, and applications. Hackers look for known vulnerabilities in systems that should have been updated with current security patches but weren’t. They take full advantage of a lack of, or outdated, malware protection. Implementing the recommendations in this article won’t guarantee that you will never become a victim of a cybercrime, but it will dramatically reduce the likelihood. And having current backups of your critical data will help to mitigate the impact should an incident occur.