When we think about keeping our family safe online, the conversation usually focuses on the content on the screens of their favorite devices. Is what they are watching appropriate? What have they been searching online? Who are they messaging — and are they who they say they are? One of the biggest threats to your family’s safety is one that many families tend to overlook: hackers.
Imagine a scenario where someone has gained control of your bank account and transferred your money to various accounts across the globe. Consider the damage if a hacker used your child’s social security number to open credit cards and make fraudulent purchases. It might not be discovered for years. Their credit would be ruined before they were even old enough to understand what credit is. Unfortunately, social security numbers and similar information are prime targets for that exact reason.
At a recent event I attended, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) categorized hackers into two groups. The first group comprised roughly 70 percent of hackers globally. They described this group as being savvy, but unable to cause much trouble when minimal security precautions were in place. I’ve compiled a list of measures you can take to protect your family from these individuals.
Creating smart, complex passwords are the first step in securing your online presence. Most of us have two or three passwords we use for everything. The problem comes when a website gets breached, and your information is shared online. Hackers have sophisticated software that will use leaked information to attempt to log into thousands of popular sites at once. The email address and password you used to sign up for an online music subscription could give hackers access to your email. There are a few rules to follow when creating a new password that can ensure it will not easily be decoded.
- The longer, the better — Create a password longer than eight characters. Many experts suggest using a phrase or short sentence instead of a traditional password. Short sentences will make your password easier to remember and highly secure.
- Include special characters — Symbols such as an exclamation point, dollar sign or even a space will greatly increase the strength of the password.
- Change it up — Don’t use the same password for multiple sites. Everyone has a “go to” password, but in this day and age, that is not safe. One simple adjustment is to add a few characters to the end of your password for each website. For example, add the letters “Tw” to the beginning or end of your password for Twitter. This way, you can use a similar password for each site, but still have some security in the event of a data breach.
Complex passwords are good, but a password manager is a much better solution.
A password manager is a service designed to help you create strong passwords and keep those passwords safe. The service can generate and store long, complex passwords to replace existing passwords you may be using. The application encrypts your data in your “vault” and automatically enters the pertinent information for each site you visit. Automatically filling in the data prevents hackers or malicious software from stealing your information as you type it in.
Password managers can keep track of more than just passwords, too. They can hold credit card information, addresses, PINs, and other sensitive information that websites ask for when making a purchase. Many security experts view this as one of the best ways to secure your online presence.
This all may sound highly complicated, but in reality, password managers are quite simple to use. The most challenging part is choosing which password manager to trust. I recommend LastPass. It is straightforward to work with, includes a smartphone app, and provides several helpful features. A yearly subscription costs $36 and includes premium features that are well worth the investment. For example, if you believe your account has been comprised, LastPass can automatically change your password to many major websites with the click of a button. Dashlane and Keeper also are good options to consider if LastPass isn’t for you.
Now you know how to create strong passwords and secure them. But how do you know if your information was part of a security breach and is now floating around online? Every state has enacted legislation requiring organizations to notify individuals when a security breach involving their data occurs. The laws are all a bit different, and big corporations have ways to delay those notifications for months after a violation is discovered.
Troy Hunt, a regional director at Microsoft, created a website to help people determine if their data is at risk. HaveIBeenPwned.com allows users to search through all known data breaches for their email address. If the email address is found, the site describes how the breach occurred and what personally identified information was leaked. I highly recommend anyone who reads this column to visit the website to see if their email address has been a part of a breach. Be sure to click the “Notify Me” link at the top of the site to be notified of any additional data leaks that include your information.
Doing a semi-annual credit check on your children’s social security numbers is another fantastic way to stay vigilant. A quick check can ensure no suspicious activity is taking place. The process is simple. Sign up on Credit.com to check credit scores for free. Checking your credit score is a soft credit inquiry. Soft credit inquiries, or soft pulls, are not a result of attempting to secure a loan or credit card. Soft inquiries do not affect your credit rating. Take a moment to place a reoccurring appointment in your calendar to check your children’s credit scores.
Apply Your Updates
Make sure that you are installing the updates on the devices in your life. Most digital devices have an option to apply an update when available automatically. Computers and smartphones are the obvious items that come to mind. Don’t forget about equipment such as your WiFi router, cable modem, or other home security devices like a Ring Doorbell or Smartlock. Use the management or settings options to check for updates.
Microsoft Windows comes with an above average, built-in virus scanner, and most Apple products are known to be less susceptible to unwanted programs. Even with those things in place, I still recommend a paid subscription to an antivirus software installed on any computers in your home. MalwareBytes is my personal preference. The site has an annual plan for $60 that covers three devices. The software is reliable and works on a variety of computer platforms. The installation will walk you through setting up an automatic scan each week, as well as setting up other ways to keep your system(s) protected. AVG, as well as Symantec, are other virus protection software packages you could consider.
Taking the steps outlined above will dramatically decrease the chances of your digital lives being disrupted by unsavory individuals. The cost and time associated with setting these up will leave you with a peace of mind that is well worth the effort.
Mike Daugherty is a husband, father of three young children, author, speaker, Google Innovator, and possible Starbucks addict. He is a certified educational technology leader who has served in a variety of roles through his 18-year career in public education. Currently, Mike is the director of technology for the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School district in Northeast Ohio. His blog, More Than A Tech, offers advice and ideas for parenting in a digital world.