How To Protect Your Privacy Online

Simple Steps Can Thwart the Hackers

By Tracey Dowdy

Unless you’ve just stepped out of a time machine or awakened from a coma, you are aware that several celebrities had their personal photos shared without their consent last week. The hack garnered media attention mainly because celebrities were involved: higher profile hack = higher profile coverage + higher profile attorneys. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon in an age of revenge-porn and sites like My Ex where individuals post nude photos in retaliation for break-ups.

While most of us don’t have nudies we’d like to keep out of the public eye, we have plenty of other personal information and photos we’d prefer to keep private. These tips should help:

Be Proactive.

PC Magazine recently posted a list of the best antivirus software solutions for 2014, including both free and paid options. Microsoft includes a basic antivirus system in Windows 8 but keep in mind that Microsoft simply wants everyone to have a baseline. Windows Defender on its own is not enough. Mac’s tend to be much harder to hack than PC’s due to built-in security protections such as XProtect, Gatekeeper and “Malware Removal Tool” (MRT). Also, OS Leopard prevents non Apple based software from being downloaded, which further reduces the risk of picking up a virus.

Once you’ve downloaded an antivirus solution, keep it updated. You aren’t fully protected if you aren’t up-to-date. Remember, just as some viruses in nature develop drug resistant strains, online hackers will continue to work around new security settings.

Be Careful of Links.

Any time you see a link – in an email, a Facebook posting, Twitter feed, etc. – take the time to evaluate whether it’s from a trusted source. Do you know the person? Is the email/tweet/message really from the person it says it’s from? Can you trust the content description or is there a chance that what appears to be a picture of a squirrel waterskiing is actually porn or some type of malware?

Beware of “Phishing”.

Phishing is a fraudulent attempt to steal your personal information. What appears to be a legitimate request to update personal information is in fact a clever ruse to steal that data. These attacks don’t just come via the Internet. At least 3 times in the last 12 months I’ve received a phone call purporting to be from Microsoft warning me of a virus on my computer or offering to help because they’ve noticed my computer is “running slow.” All I have to do is allow them remote access to my computer and they’ll be glad to help. Microsoft is not calling. It’s a call centre in India. Trust me, they aren’t there to help.

Even more devious is “spear phishing,” where the scammer will do his homework by Googling you, perusing your social media or other online profiles so when they call, they can pose as a trustworthy source. Just last year in our area, a group of seniors were targeted by individuals posing as grandchildren who had gotten into trouble and needed money for bail, a bus ticket or groceries. The seniors shared banking information to allow money to be direct deposited in the scammers bank accounts and the seniors lost thousands of dollars.

Use 2-Step or 2-Factor Authentication.

Instead of simply logging in with a password, 2-step authentication links your accounts to another device – usually your phone – so when you attempt to log in, a text is sent with an additional security code. This way, if someone tries to hack into your account without your phone, they’re locked out. Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and many others offer this option.

Don’t Trust Requests for Personal Information.

If you created an online account with a reputable site like PayPal, they already have your information. If you get an email purporting to be from Paypal asking you to follow the link and update your information, beware. Instead, go to Paypal and talk to Customer Support. Ask if they recently tried to contact you.

Lock It Down.

Your smartphone, your laptop, your tablet, any device – just lock it down. Set your screensaver to prompt for a password, enable the lock screen on your phone, and password protect your home network.

Protect Your Financial Information.

Never do your online banking on a public Wi-Fi network. Readily available freeware allows the person sitting next to you at Starbucks to eavesdrop on your email as easily as your conversation. And although I feel like it’s stating the obvious, don’t send money to anyone you don’t know. If the offer seems too good to be true, trust me, it is. Bill Gates donates millions to charity every year but he isn’t doing it by asking you to share his photo on Facebook, nor will he send you $5,000 if you repost his photo. Clicking on those links runs the risk of allowing scammers access to your Facebook profile and other sensitive information.

Password Protection Is Critical.

Internet security professionals recommend using a random combination of upper and lower case letters, symbols, and numbers when you formulate a password. And here’s a tip about those security questions asked as an added level of protection: lie, lie, lie. If your mother’s maiden name is MacDonald, say it’s Abramowitz. If your first pet was Mr. Fluffy, say it was Boomer. In other words, be very careful of providing answers that are easy to find by someone who knows you, could read your blog, browse your Facebook profile, or look up information that’s part of a public record.

Better yet, use a password manager to store and organize your passwords. Many are guilty of using the same password for multiple sites, because it’s just too much work to remember them, or they keep a list of passwords in a desk drawer, in a note on their phone, or in a file labelled “Passwords” on their desktop (shudder). Two of the best are Dashlane 3 ($29.99) and LastPass 3.0 ($12.99 but a free version is also available); both are compatible with Apple, PC and Android devices.

Keeping your personal information isn’t easy but it’s worth the work. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t hand the keys to your house to a random stranger on the street, so why would you leave the front door unlocked to your virtual home?

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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