The amount of time Americans spend online — emailing, direct messaging, keeping up with social media, and simply surfing the Internet — keeps going up. According to the latest annual study by the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg, we now spend close to 24 hours a week online, almost double the amount of time expended in 2000.
No question about it, instant access to worlds of online data has become an indispensable aspect of modern life. But with all that additional time online comes increased risk of falling prey to hackers, phishers, identity thieves, and other cyberscammers. According to the Federal Trade Commission, around 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Other sources suggest the number of identity theft victims may be close to double that figure; either way, it’s a costly crime that can take months and considerable anguish to resolve, as victims seek to repair their credit ratings, dig out from fraudulent charges, and undo the damage.
Even if you haven’t had your online identity hijacked, you’ve probably experienced some form of data breach that may compromise your personal information; hundreds of millions of personal records, ranging from sensitive medical and financial data to passwords, birthdates and email contacts, have been exposed to hackers through security lapses in the databases maintained by banks, credit and mortgage companies, government agencies, gaming sites, and numerous other institutions. In many instances, those breaches have led to class-action lawsuits against the companies involved.
The threat of a data breach has prompted many consumers to take a more active role in their own cybersecurity. You don’t have to be an IT specialist to take a few basic steps to protect yourself and your data. Here are a few quick steps to greater peace of mind.
KEEP YOUR SOFTWARE SECURE
Detection of viruses and malware has improved greatly over the past few years. To be effective, though, your security software needs to be updated regularly; you also need to take seriously operating system updates, as these sometimes include patches that address recently discovered gaps in your armor. Make sure you have adequate security software running at all times, whether you’re using a desktop, tablet, or smart phone.
PUBLIC WI-FI IS TOO PUBLIC
When you hop on an unsecured network, you’re basically inviting any ripoff artist in the area into your data. Public wi-fi should never be used for banking transactions or transmissions of private, sensitive data. Security experts advise using public wi-fi as little as possible (why not just rely on your smart phone network?), staying away from third-party providers who ask for a lot of personal information, and turning to a Virtual Private Network client if possible.
AVOID THE PHISHING HOLE
Many people have learned the hard way not to click on email attachments they weren’t expecting, particularly from an address they don’t recognize. But the phishers are often more sophisticated these days, with come-ons in social media ads that don’t look like ads, pleas from your bank (or an entity that seems a lot like your bank) to take immediate action against fraud, and so on. Regardless of the trappings, don’t fall for the bait, don’t click on suspicious links. To determine if the message is really from your bank or your colleague, go to the source, through a fresh email or a search engine that takes you to a legitimate website.
BULKING UP YOUR PASSWORDS
Few things are more annoying than trying to recall some complex string of letters, numbers, and special characters you devised in an effort to come up with an uncrackable password. If it’s uncrackable to you, you’re doing it wrong. Yes, you should avoid obvious passwords (like the classic “Password123”), birth dates and other easily retrievable personal data, such as your pet’s name. But that doesn’t mean it has to be gibberish you can’t remember. Try long phrases, mixed with numbers or special characters, that mean something to you but couldn’t be easily discerned by others; for example, an outdoor enthusiast might use “letsgo2skicopperNOW!” Use different passwords on different sites, and consider using a password manager to keep track of them. For added protection, some websites offer multi-factor authentication, or MFA.
KNOW WHO YOU’RE SHARING DATA WITH
In the heyday of music-swapping and file-sharing services of a few years ago, an astonishing number of users didn’t realize that they were opening their own files to an anonymous “community,” some of whom had bad intentions. Now it’s easier to protect your data from unauthorized intruders, but it’s still a good idea to be cautious about the websites you visit and especially ones that you make purchases from.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR BOTTOM LINE
All consumers should request a free annual credit report from the three major credit bureaus, just to see if the information is correct. Big red flags, of course, are any dramatic, unexplained changes in your credit rating or attempts to open new accounts that you didn’t know about. Depending on your situation, you might also want to consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service or asking the credit bureaus to freeze your credit, meaning that no new accounts can be opened by an identity thief posing as you.
THE DATA BREACH EXPERTS AT FDAZAR
Franklin D. Azar & Associates is one of the largest plaintiff law firms in Colorado, known for championing the rights of individuals who have suffered damages at the hands of large corporations. Over the past 30 years, our attorneys have secured more than $1.5 billion in compensation for our clients.
Our class action department is staffed with experienced and knowledgeable attorneys who focus on litigating large, complex cases. We are currently investigating cases involving abusive wage practices, employees whose 401(k) plans have been subject to excessive fees and mismanagement, improper fees charged by investment companies, data security issues affecting Facebook users, and more.
If you have suffered damages as a result of unfair business practices, data breaches, or corporate misconduct, the class action attorneys at FDAzar may be able to help. Speak with a member of our class-action team today or contact us here. The consultation is free.