As a trained risk manager I see lots of data regarding how careless individuals are when they venture into cyberspace. People love to log in to their social networks and post pictures, let everyone know where they are going to be and when, then tell the world of their travels and/or shopping sprees. Many people out there don’t even attempt to hide their personal information from the general public – their “friends” – let alone the various criminals and hackers who are swarming the Internet every second of every day. And that isn’t the half of it. We shop online, too, with unfettered abandon, making ourselves open books for any and all to see. Back in the old days, the bad guys had to use a gun to get our wallets and steal our credit cards. Now, we basically give it to them in the form of self-created peepholes in our Internet privacy.
When a deviant breaks into a system that maxes out our credit card, blows a security clearance or steals our identity, we blame the hackers or poor online security. We either forget or in many cases are unaware that there are simple, common-sense steps that we can take toward preventing the breach in the first place. It is human nature to become complacent, however it is easy enough to rise above the daily haze and protect ourselves with very little effort. Just as we lock our doors at night in the “real world,” we can put a lock on our digital profile.
The following are six free ways to take control of your Internet privacy:
1. Clean Up Your Cyber Footprint
Get a copy of your credit report* and use this as your foundation to correct any misinformation regarding past delinquencies and already closed accounts. Close any and all social media services that you don’t use, and think twice before sharing your personal information with anyone on any platform. At a minimum, make sure your connection is secure (encrypted) by looking for HTTPS:// as opposed to HTTP:// at the beginning of your intended Web address.
*Don’t ever pay for your credit report. Don’t be fooled by companies including freecreditreport.com whose main interest is to sign you up for an expensive monthly “monitoring” service. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only page to visit for your free annual credit report.
AnnualCreditReport.com was set up to comply with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), legislation that requires the credit bureaus to provide consumers with a copy of their credit report once per year. It is the only official site you should use to obtain a free copy of your credit report from Experian, TransUnion, Equifax or all three.
2. Isolate Email and Electronic Payment Methods
If you are going to buy online, and most of us do, the smartest thing to do is consolidate your cyber tools. Use a designated email account for ecommerce, and most importantly, if you insist on using plastic, use a dedicated credit card. However, it is always recommended to use an electronic option such as PayPal, Apple Pay or Amazon Payments.
3. Use a Password Generator
Stop using the same weak password – 12345, your middle name or a child’s birthday. Companies including Dashlane.com and Keepass.info offer free password generators and online password vaults that are very effective in protecting you and your personal information from the point of login.
4. Use Caution
Be proactive when browsing the net as some pages (porn, music, file-sharing sites, etc.) are more apt than others to have spyware, malware and/or hackers lurking about, and there is no way to know when or where you are at risk. Consider taking advantage of free anti-malware and/or anti-virus programs from Microsoft, Malwarebytes, AVG, et al. Learn how to control your cookie intake by adjusting your security-related Internet settings.
5. Heed Warnings
Pop-ups occur for a reason. Don't give out personally identifiable information too easily. Just as you might think twice about giving some clerk at the mall your home address and phone number, keep in mind that simply because a site asks for or demands personal information from you does not mean you have to comply.
6. Don’t Engage
We have all been told “If you don’t have anything nice to say….” That old adage most definitely applies to the Internet, with the emphasis shifting to written speech instead of spoken words. Point is, if you don’t have anything nice to write, don’t. Don’t engage in blogs, chat sessions or other forums where misinformation, hate or other malicious endeavors may be the intent. Deescalate. If you think what you are doing is hurtful, it probably is. Never lash out or try to hurt another’s feelings with your comments online. Remember your written words never go away once posted. They’re trackable and traceable, like a trail of breadcrumbs that can lead back to you months or years after you no longer care or feel differently about the subject or person.