Secure Your Life in 12 Steps
7. Install a Link-Checker Plug-In
Security threats may lurk in seemingly innocuous Web pages. Legitimate sites may get hacked, cybercriminals game search engines to make sure that their infected pages come up in searches for hot topics (a technique known as "search engine poisoning"), and seemingly safe sites may harbor malware. Although you have no way to guard against these attacks completely, using a link checker can help protect you from many of them.
Link-checker tools typically show small badges next to links in search results and elsewhere to indicate whether a site is trustworthy, dangerous, or questionable. Many such tools also add a status indicator to your browser's toolbar to signal the presence of any problems with the site that you're currently visiting.
8. Don't Neglect Physical Security
A thief can snatch an unattended laptop from a desk and walk away in a matter of seconds. And a thief who has your laptop may have access to your files and personal information. A notebook lock won't prevent someone from cutting the cable, but it can deter crimes of opportunity.
Kensington is probably best-known for its notebook locks; it offers an array of locks for laptops and desktops. Targus is a second vendor that specializes in laptop security gear, including one lock that sounds an alarm when someone tries to pick up the attached laptop or cut the lock cable.
Prying eyes are a common security hazard. To prevent unauthorized viewing of your data when you step away from your desk, always lock your screen before leaving your PC unattended. To do this, simply hold down the Windows key and type the letter L. This will bring up the lock screen. To get back to work, press Ctrl-Alt-Delete, and enter your login password at the prompt.
Another way to shield your screen is to install a privacy filter over the display. These filters fit directly on a monitor so other people can't peer over your shoulder and see what's on the screen. A privacy filter may be particularly useful if you work in an "open" office that lacks cubicle walls. Various companies sell these filters, including Targus, 3M, and Fellowes.
When you're browsing the Web, protect yourself by using HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) whenever possible. HTTPS encrypts the connection between your PC and the Website you're visiting. Though HTTPS doesn't guarantee that a site is secure, it can help prevent other parties from hacking into the network and gaining access to your account.
Many sites use HTTPS by default: When you purchase an item online or log in to online banking, for instance, your browser will probably connect to the site via HTTPS automatically. But you can go one step further by enabling HTTPS on Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail.
To use Facebook's HTTPS feature, log in to Facebook and click Account in the upper-right corner. Select Account Settings from the drop-down menu, and look for ‘Account Security' on the resulting page. Under the Account Security heading, click Change, check the box next to Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible, and click Save.
For Twitter, first log in to your account. If you're using the new Twitter interface, click your account name in the upper-right part of the screen, and select settings. (If you're still using the old Twitter interface, click the Settings link in the upper right of the window.) From there, scroll down to the bottom of the resulting page, check the box next to Always use HTTPS, and click Save.
To enable HTTPS on Gmail, log in to your account, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and select Mail Settings from the drop-down menu. Next, under the Browser Connection heading, select the button labeled Always use https. When you're all set, scroll to the bottom of the page and click Save Changes. To learn more about Gmail security, visit Google's Gmail Security Checklist page.
10. Avoid Public Computers and Wi-Fi
As convenient as free Wi-Fi and publicly available computers may be at, say, a public library or café, using them can leave you and your personal information exposed. Public computers might be infected with spyware and other types of malware designed to track your movements online and harvest your passwords.
The same is true of open Wi-Fi networks. Cyberthieves may set up rogue Wi-Fi networks that look legitimate (for instance, one may be named for the café that you're visiting) but enable the crooks to collect your personal information. Even legitimate open Wi-Fi networks may leave you vulnerable. For an example, look no further than the Firesheep plug-in for Firefox, which allows just about anyone to hijack log-in sessions for various social networks.
Sometimes, you may have no choice but to use a public computer or Wi-Fi network. When you do, don't use it to check your e-mail or social network accounts, conduct online banking, or perform any other action that entails logging in to a site. If you have access to a VPN, use it.
11. Be Password Smart
You probably know already that using obvious or easy-to-discover passwords like "password" or your pet's name is a bad idea. But how can you make your passwords significantly more secure?
First, you need to use a different long, strong password for each account. Hackers often attempt to break into accounts by employing a "dictionary attack," which involves using words straight from the dictionary to guess your password. So don't use standard words as your passwords; instead, try creating them from a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. And don't simply replace letters in a word with a symbol (for example, using the @ symbol in place of an A); it's too common a trick. You can also strengthen your passwords by using a mix of lowercase and capital letters.
Basically, the more complex a password is, the better. But try to use something that you'll be able to remember--a mnemonic of some sort that incorporates various alphanumeric symbols--and that nobody but you would know.
Remembering multiple passwords can be a challenge, which is why many people find that a good password manager is indispensable. KeePass is a good, free password-management option that works on Windows and Mac OS X systems. Another possibility is 1Password ($40), which can generate and manage passwords for you.
12. Check Your Credit Report Each Year
Unfortunately, even if you do everything right, bad guys might still succeed in stealing your identity. After all, you can control who has access to your personal information, but you can't control how well a company that you do business with secures its personal-data records.
Nevertheless, you can limit the damage that would result from undetected identity theft by checking your credit report regularly. Periodically checking your credit report is a good way to make sure that no one has opened credit card or bank accounts under your name.
If you are a U.S. citizen, you're entitled to receive one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit agencies--Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion--via AnnualCreditReport.com. The service will let you examine and print out your credit report for free, but if you want to obtain your actual credit score, you'll have to pay for it. Since your freebie credit report is just a once-a-year affair, it's a good idea to insert a reminder in your calendar to check in again with AnnualCreditReport.com in 12 months.