In the last 18 months alone, hacks of Premera Blue Cross, Anthem, Sony, Home Depot, JPMorgan, and Ebay have resulted in a total of over 400 million records being stolen. These records ranged from email accounts and physical addresses to bank account credentials and Social Security numbers [1]. Other high profile hacks include breaches of White House and State Department computers containing sensitive information allegedly by hackers from Russia [2]. It seems that on a regular basis, businesses and government organizations fall victim to hackers who are looking for money, information, or even just a thrill.

Not only are hackers after your personal records stored by companies and the government, they are also targeting individuals on a daily basis.

But this could never happen directly to you, right? Think again. Hackers not only are after your records stored by companies and the government, but also are targeting individuals on a daily basis. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, identity theft, which has become immensely easier due to the increased reliance on online accounts, now affects over 17 million Americans every year [3]. Hackers are after not only your emails, but also your financial accounts and the privileges that come with them – identity theft costs American citizens losses of over $50 billion annually [4]. This begs a seemingly simple but truly complex question: how do you prevent yourself from getting hacked? In this article we’ll explore a few steps you can take to make yourself safer online.

Step 1: Have a Secure Password

As obvious as it sounds, having a secure password will help prevent your accounts from getting hacked. The more simple your password, the more likely you are to get hacked. Most websites already advise or force you to create a password of a certain complexity, so be sure to follow those guidelines! Also, avoid extremely common passwords like “123456”, “password”, “qwerty”, or “monkey” [5]—these are some of the first passwords hackers will try. A more complex password would take longer for hackers to arrive at when they use the “brute force” tactic of trying every possible combination of letters and numbers; the password also should not be based on easily acquirable or guessable information like your name, birthday, or favorite food [6]. While such passwords will be harder to remember, they will also make breaking into your account a longer and more complex process for a hacker.

Step 2: Be Wary of Phishing Scams

A phishing scam involves using legitimate-appearing emails and websites to request login information. Once you submit that information, it is given to hackers instead of the company or website you thought you were providing it to. For example, a Facebook phishing scam will send you to a website that looks exactly like Facebook, with Facebook’s home page and login fields, but that site will not be Facebook itself. In this case, the URL of the website will be different, so do not enter your login information into any URL that is not exactly “https://www.facebook.com/” [7]. Additionally, a URL with “https” is using a secure protocol known as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to encrypt data, so be wary of websites that do not have an “s” after “http” in their address [8]. Phishing could also be an email supposedly from a bank asking for your bank account information. In this case, never send your information back in an email – call your bank and figure out if there actually is an issue.

Step 3: Utilize Two-Factor Authentication

Two-Factor authentication itself is not an extremely old concept, but it has become more popular in recent years. Normally when logging into an account, all you need to provide is an email and password. However, with two-factor authentication, you also need to provide a separate PIN sent to your cell phone. This makes it impossible for a hacker to get into your account unless he/she has both your login information and your cell phone. Again, logging in will now be slightly longer for you, but two-factor authentication can go a long way in ensuring that logging in is much harder for a hacker. Almost every email, social media, and financial website now offers two-factor authentication [9]; be sure to enable it on your account.

Step 4: Be Careful with your Computer in Public

Last but not least, be sure to keep your computer secure at all times when you use it in a public location, whether that place is where you work, a library, or a coffee shop. Although it sounds so simple, numerous people have their laptops stolen and accounts hacked simply because someone tampered with their machine while they were away. Keep your computer close at all times or have someone you trust watch over it when you cannot.

Sources:

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2014-data-breaches/

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/russian-government-hacked-into-the-white-house-computers-report-says-10161082.html

[3] http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=42

[4] http://www.identitytheft.info/victims.aspx

[5] http://gizmodo.com/the-25-most-popular-passwords-of-2014-were-all-doomed-1680596951

[6] http://www2.humboldt.edu/its/node/1929

[7] http://www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/phishing.htm

[8] http://www.biztechmagazine.com/article/2007/07/http-vs-https

[9] http://lifehacker.com/5938565/heres-everywhere-you-should-enable-two-factor-authentication-right-now

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