Every online user’s biggest fear is a security breach. We store so much important IP on our devices and in the cloud, the idea of hackers trying to steal our data is something we all want to avoid. But how does one go about preventing these cyber-attacks? There are many ways to protect yourself online, most of which come down to knowing about a few simple but effective tools, common sense and creating some healthy habits. By integrating these steps into how you navigate the web and use your devices, you can ward off hackers and viruses, which can be a stressful and costly headache if you don’t put up strong enough barriers in time.
1. Protect Your Passwords
As you’ve no doubt heard, rule #1 to staying safe online is to use strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts. Guessing your password is one of the easiest and most common ways people can hack into your accounts to steal your information. Programmes help them run through millions of different username and password combinations until one works, and then try using that log in on other sites hoping you use the same password, causing a domino effect.
Using a password manager is one of the best ways to be smart with your passwords. It’s nearly impossible to think of strong passwords for each of your accounts, and it’s not safe to keep a list of them on your device somewhere in case of a breach. But with a password manager, the only password you need to remember is the one for the actual password manager itself. When you are trying to log in somewhere, you enter the password to the manager to unlock and automatically log in. A password manager also helps you by generating strong passwords if you’re stuck thinking of new ones regularly, especially as you will want to update them every so often. You can get high-quality password managers for free or at a very low cost, for example, RoboForm, DashLane, LastPass and Keeper are some popular options just to name a few.
We use LastPass as a team, making it quick and secure to share client (and our own) logins amongst each other. For external contractors, LastPass has the ability to share a login without them seeing what that login is which is an added level of security.
With a password manager, you can turn off or delete any saved passwords in your browser, as this is unnecessary with a manager that’s more secure. When you set up a password manager, most of them will ask you if you want to import the passwords stored in your browser, so it’s only logical that a hacking software could easily do the same thing without asking.
Best practice is to change passwords regularly to prevent hackers from accessing your data and never use one password (or versions of one password) for multiple logins.
It’s also important to use passwords wherever they’re available, even if they’re not compulsory, including on your phone, laptop or tablet. For these everyday devices, it’s better to use an actual password rather than a 4 or 6 digit pin. Chances are, you mostly use TouchID or FaceID to log into these devices, so you won’t actually have to type the password very often, but it acts as an extra precaution.
2. Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Speaking of extra precautions, using two-factor authentication is a great tool to use that adds another layer of security beyond the primary way of logging in with a username/email and password. Two-factor authentication verifies your identity by adding a second step to logging in, most commonly by sending a text code to your registered phone number, asking security questions or requesting a fingerprint scan. Enabling this in your settings wherever it’s available is highly recommended, especially if it’s for an account that stores valuable or sensitive information like with online banking.
It’s also worth noting that by using two-factor authentication, if someone tries to hack into your account and successfully enters the right password, you’ll get a text or email notification asking you to verify it. Then if this isn’t you, you know that you need to change your password.
3. Use a VPN
If you use free, public wifi sources in cafes or anywhere else you work away from home, you should seriously consider using a virtual private network (VPN). VPN’s encrypt the data you send and receive, providing a secure connection through their server even when you’re using a network and you don’t know how secure the connection is. When you use public wifi, there could be other people on that network looking to try and hack into your devices, but a VPN makes it significantly more difficult for them to do this. There are some free VPN’s available but the best ones like ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, NordVPN and Surfshark all come with a paid subscription plan, most of which do come with a free trial for you to decide which suits you best.
4. Be Smart with Financial Information
One of the main things hackers are after is your financial data so that they can access and drain your bank accounts. Obviously, we don’t want this, so it pays to be cautious with how you shop online. To prevent credit card fraud, try looking into a virtual credit card, where you use a temporary number with every purchase despite having one regular account. You can learn more about this here, as there are both advantages and disadvantages, but if you feel unsafe using the standard credit card system, this could be the solution for you.
There are other simple but effective ways to be smart with your finances online. When you are visiting a website, check the link to see if the ‘https://.’ has an ‘s’, as this indicates that the connection is encrypted, and therefore protected. Shopping on websites without this ‘s’ is highly unwise, as you can’t guarantee that your data will be safe. It’s also important not to save your payment information on the websites that you shop on because if the company’s network is breached, this threatens you … even if you’ve taken all the other precautions.
5. Think Before You Click
This is where common sense comes into online safety, which, depending on how you look at things, is either the easiest or the hardest part of staying secure. One of the easiest ways you can get a virus is by simply clicking on the wrong thing. A dodgy link could be presented to you in an email, on social media, or even through a message from one of your friends. These are known as phishing links, which could lead you to a website asking for personal information, or it could automatically download malware that infects and compromises your device. These links often try to disguise themselves as something authentic and harmless so you click on them without thinking, so it pays to keep a keen eye out looking for small details to reveal whether they’re fake or not. Try looking out for the ‘s’ in the ‘https://.’, as this could be a subtle sign of the link’s untrustworthy nature. Don’t open links from strangers, or if someone you know sends you a link in a message that seems out of character, double-check with them that they meant to send it before you click. Also, check for typos, or if it the message looks like it has been badly translated, as these are more obvious signs that the link is dangerous, but we can still overlook them if we aren’t keeping an eye out.
There are also tools you can use to check a link by copying and pasting it before you click it. Try Google Safe Browsing, where you type in this URL: “https://google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site= ” followed by the link or IP address you are suspicious of, and it will alert you to any malware it has hosted within the past 90 days. Other options include Norton Safe Web, Sucuri’s Unmask Parasites, HP Host’s URL Checker, or browser add-ons to automatically protect you.
6. Explore Your Security Tools
As I’ve gone over many tools to help make your online activities more secure, you may be ready to download some of them, from password managers to a VPN or a URL checker. One of the dangers you don’t want to fall into, however, is to simply download your security tool and never think of it. Take, Find My iPhone for example, many people download it without actually bothering to learn how it works, and don’t think twice of it. If you don’t take the time to actively learn how these tools work, when it comes to the time where you need to properly use them, you’re scrambling and panicked. By looking into the settings of these tools and ensuring you have them properly set up, you can actually understand them and therefore know how to use them to protect you.
7. Maintain Your Devices
Just like with your security tools, maintaining the safety of your devices isn’t as easy as a one and done process. There are several places you want to regularly update to ensure your devices are protected, as well as some ongoing practices. It’s worthwhile to get into the habit of clearing your cache regularly, so that your saved cookies, searches and history aren’t accessible in case of a breach. Your daily web activities can save personal data without you even realising, from your home address saved through Google Maps to family information on social media. Because of this, it’s useful to be frugal with the information you share to reduce your online footprint. This doesn’t mean you can’t still be open with loved ones on social media, but ensure that your privacy settings are airtight to prevent outsiders from accessing information without your permission.
Here is a brief list of the last few things you want to maintain to stay safe (and remember, if you are working with a VA this is something they can help you manage):
- Update Your Software: Keeping your device and browser software up to date is useful as these often include security fixes that can deter hackers.
- Back-Up Your Data: Back-up all important information and files on a regular basis so that you have everything stored safely in case of emergency.
- Update Your Website Plugins: Updates contain the latest security tools to help protect your website from hackers, but remember to take a backup first!
- Check App Permissions: Your apps can access your location and other parts of your phone, like your camera roll, even when you’re not actively using them if you don’t have certain permissions disabled.
- Permanently Delete Files: To avoid hackers recovering any dangerous files, ensure that you empty your bin so that all unwanted data is actually gone.
- See Devices Using Your Google Account: regularly check your google account to see who’s signed in as you. You’ll be surprised!
- Change passwords regularly: using a tool like LastPass makes this easy.
- Don’t have one password (or a version of) for multiple logins.
Staying safe online doesn’t require a degree in computer science, you just need to be equipped with the right tools and keep an eye out for signs of suspicious activity.