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Protect Your Personal Information and Data

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The internet has been called the information superhighway. But with scammers, hackers, and other bad guys trying to steal your personal information online, it’s a good idea to know how to lock down your devices, network, and information. That way, your passwords, Social Security number, or account numbers don’t go speeding along the superhighway to the scammers.

Secure Your Devices

Keep your security software, internet browser, and operating system up to date.

Criminals look for weak points to exploit before the software companies can fix them. But updating your software regularly — as soon as possible when a newer version comes out — helps make sure you have critical patches and protections against security threats.

For information on how to update your security software, operating system and internet browsers and apps, go to the developer’s website. They usually have a way to sign up for email updates or set them up to update automatically. Don’t ignore reminders to make updates. You don’t want to leave a door open so hackers can get your information.

Be sure to update:

  • Security software. Your antivirus or firewall programs must be up to date to work, whether they came pre-installed or you loaded them onto your device.
  • Operating system software. This could be Windows, Apple OS, or Chrome, for example.
  • Internet browsers and apps. Developers often provide updates to address security issues, to fix bugs, or add new features.

Secure Your Accounts

Once your computer, tablet, and phone are secure, next take steps to protect your accounts — particularly those with personal information, like your bank, email, and social media accounts.

Create and use strong passwords

That means at least 12 characters. Making a password longer is generally the easiest way to increase its strength. Consider using a passphrase of random words so that your password is more memorable, but avoid using common words or phrases. For more tips, check out this Password Checklist.

Use multi-factor authentication

Some accounts offer extra security by requiring two or more credentials to log in to your account. This is called multi-factor authentication. These additional credentials fall into two categories:

  • Something you have, like a passcode you get via an authentication app or a security key.
  • Something you are, like a scan of your fingerprint, your retina, or your face.

Multi-factor authentication makes it harder for scammers to log in to your accounts if they do get your username and password.

Choose security questions only you know the answer to

Many security questions ask for answers to information available in public records or online. So, when you can, avoid questions like your zip code, mother’s maiden name, and birth place. And avoid using questions with a limited number of responses that attackers can easily guess — like the color of your first car. You can even put in random answers to make guessing more difficult. If you do that, though, you’ll have to remember the answers you use.

Back up your data to protect it. Backing up your data means making an extra copy of all your files. That way, if something happens — say a virus, your device crashes, or you’re hacked — you still have your files. It’s important to do it once a week so you don’t lose important data, like your photos, documents, and files. If you do need to restore a backup, it will only be as current as the last time you backed up.

Here are two options, and a few things to consider when choosing how to back up your files.

  • Save your files in the cloud. There are many cloud storage services that let you save files and data online. You may be familiar with some, like Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox, OneDrive, or iCloud, but there are many others out there. Many of these services come with some free storage space, and you can pay for more storage. When you save your information in the cloud, you’re trusting someone else to keep that information safe. If you’re thinking about using cloud storage, find out what level of privacy or security the different services offer.
  • Save your files to an external storage device. A USB flash drive is an affordable option that offers a moderate amount of storage. Another option is an external hard drive. It might cost a little more than a USB drive, but it can give you more storage capacity, transfer data faster, and be more reliable. You can decide which files or folders to back up, and you may be able to schedule automatic backups.

Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

Peer-to-peer file-sharing programs can give you access to free music and videos, but they come with risks. For example:

  • strangers might be able to see and share your personal files
  • the program might share files and folders you didn’t plan on sharing
  • you might unknowingly download malware, pirated or copyrighted material, or pornography.

If you decide to use a peer-to-peer program, use your security software to scan any files before you open them, and before you play any downloaded files. Avoid any peer-to-peer program that asks you to disable or change the settings of your firewall. Disabling or changing these settings could weaken your computer’s security.

Protect Your Home Network

One important way to protect your information is to protect your network at home. Think of your router as the connecting point between your devices and the internet. If malware gets onto any of your connected devices, it can spread to the other devices connected to your network. Your devices, accounts, and whole network are only as secure as your router.

See this article on Securing Your Home Network to learn how to quickly make your router and your network more secure.

Protect Yourself While on Wi-Fi

You can control how secure your home network is — but you can’t do the same for public Wi-Fi. It’s always best to assume it’s not secure.

The easiest solution? Save your online shopping, banking, and other personal transactions for when you’re on your home network. Or use your mobile data, as that data is typically encrypted.

If you do use public Wi-Fi, read more about protecting your personal information while you’re online in public.

Report Identity Theft

If you think someone has gotten into your accounts or has your personal information, visit IdentityTheft.gov. There, you’ll get steps to take to find out if your identity has been misused, and how to report and recover from identity theft.