Friday, June 13, 2014

Digital Hygiene: Part 1 - tips for preventing identity theft

By Don Gardner

This is the first in a series of articles by Don Gardner, Clearwater County Emergency Management Coordinator, about protecting your digital identity.

Digital hygiene is like personal hygiene: once you start doing it, it becomes second nature, and you’re better off. Bad digital hygiene, like not brushing your teeth, can lead to gunk.

Whereas the gunk in your teeth from failing to brush regularly will put you in the dentist’s chair, the gunk from failing to protect your mobile phone or computer could ruin your credit and, sometimes worse, compromise the security of friends and colleagues around you with whom you communicate.

It could be inadvertently opened emails, that link you clicked but that didn’t go anywhere. The Internet is a cesspool of viruses, trojans, back doors, worms, and more, and whether you realize it or not, every day you wade through it to get to the content you really want. Identity thieves will steal your personal information from many sources. They can damage your credit status and cost you time and money restoring your good name.

Here are some steps you can take to better protect yourself. Everyone should start with Level 1 and then continue with the other levels (which I will discuss in future articles) as you feel you may need.
Level 1

Lock your cell phone. Sure, it’s annoying to punch in four digits every time you want to use your phone, which is probably dozens of times a day (at least). But that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the huge hassle that awaits if someone snatches your phone and steals your sensitive data.

Most mobile phones are not secure at all, for a variety of reasons. Setting a password for your mobile phone is important; however, because many of us store personal information on our phones, this includes contacts, access to social networks, calendar, and files.

Anyone using your phone will have direct access to all of these things. Keep in mind, however, that if you lose your phone, your password can eventually be hacked. As such, you should never store sensitive information on your mobile.

Social media privacy settings: Think before you post on social media sites. Social media is a computer criminal’s dream come true. Your digital imprint says more about you than your social security number or even your bank account number.

Thanks to something called metadata, individuals can figure out, for example, who you spend the most time with, track your movements, and find out who your family members are and where they live. They can even learn what diseases you have.

Not only should you be strategic about what information you put online, but you should be careful about who is able to access that information. Each social network has its own vulnerabilities and privacy settings. Be wise about what you post.

Never post personal information such as your address, phone numbers, e-mail address, driver’s license number, Social Security Number (SSN), birth date, birth place, school’s name, or student ID number. When blogging, do not disclose your location for any given day or the exact location for an event you are going to attend.

Be careful when posting photos. Make sure they do not provide clues – such as where you live, work or go to school. Also, do not post photos depicting negative behaviors – including drinking, provocative poses or illegal activities.

When a picture is taken with a digital camera or smart phone, there is information contained in the picture file, such as where the picture was taken (GPS location), when it was taken, and information on the device which took it.

Criminals can use this information to track you. While you may attempt to delete the photo at a later time, it will continue to exist in the cyber world.

Bank and business websites often require you to answer security questions before you can log in or when you want to change your password. But the questions are relatively common ones, such as your mother’s maiden name or the name of your first pet. If you’ve reminisced about your beloved childhood dog on Facebook, or given a shout-out to your mom, Jane Doe Smith, via Twitter, savvy hackers can use this info to hijack your accounts.

I recommend using fake answers that you can remember for your answers to security questions.

Next week I will offer more Level 1 tips on protecting your digital identity.

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