A woman learns about a possible security hole in her internet browser. She does a search to find out more about it and lands on a site that explains the problem and offers a free download to fix it. Wary of downloading a file from an unfamiliar site, she leaves it and goes to the browser publisher’s site. She finds the patch, downloads and installs it, and believes she’s protected.
Unfortunately, software running on the first site detected that her browser had the vulnerability. It used the vulnerability to upload and install a program that will record and transmit back every keystroke she types. As she does some online banking, the program captures her login information, account number, answers to security questions, and other private information. Weeks later, she finds that her bank account is cleaned out.
Her experience is not unique. In 2015, there were more than two data breaches every day, exposing more than 150 million records. In 2014, cyber criminals stole $16 billion from 12.7 million U.S. consumers. More than one-third of cyber crime in 2015 involved computer hacking. With so many successful data thefts occurring, everyone must assume that the criminals are coming for their information.
There are things individuals can do to reduce their chances of becoming victims:
- Set tough privacy settings on all computerized devices – laptops, desktops, phones and tablets. Use complicated passwords. It is harder for a hacker to figure out a password like “77g0HH**6” than it is to figure out “birthday”. Change your password periodically.
- Do not respond to unsolicited requests for your information via email or web sites.
- Do not download files from web sites unless you are familiar with and trust them.
- Before sharing personal information on social media, carefully consider whether the benefit is worth the risk.
- Learn about the fraud protections offered by banks and credit card companies. Find out what the terms and conditions are. Keep the phone numbers for reporting fraudulent activity handy.
- Some states have laws that permit consumers to place security freezes on their credit information at no cost. Find out if yours is one of them.
- Before buying hot new technologies in a car or for home appliances, consider the data risks. Any computerized device can be hacked. Buyers should consider whether the convenience offered by these technologies outweighs the risks.
- Find out the insurance options available. Some insurers bundle identity fraud coverage with homeowners and auto policies. Talk to an agent about what the insurance does and does not cover.
- Periodically check credit reports. The three major credit reporting agencies – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax – provide one free credit report per year to consumers. These reports should be monitored for unfamiliar activity.
Internet technology has made life better and more convenient in many ways, but it has also opened new pathways for criminals. Consumers cannot assume that they are safe. Taking precautions may not completely eliminate the chance of being hacked, but they will make it much less likely.