A few months back, The New York Times reported that an out-of-work former taxi driver from Romania hacked into the email accounts of some of the world’s most powerful people, including George W. Bush and Colin Powell.
How did he do it?
He guessed their passwords.
That’s right. He gathered a few pieces of information about both Bush and Powell from the Web, and with some patience and a little trial and error, he guessed the passwords.
I am certainly no security expert, but I have come to know a thing or two about protecting your privacy and securing your personal information. After all, I make a living out of digging up information on people. Although I am not a hacker and don’t try to crack into people’s email, I do handle quite a bit of “sensitive” information.
What I have come to learn is that most of these commonsense, “ridiculously easy” things you can do to protect your privacy are not so common to other people.
Password Protect Your Smartphone
Think of all the sensitive personal information that’s on your mobile device. Contacts, passwords, access to bank accounts, social networks and the history of your email. It would seem pretty obvious that one would want to protect this information, but apparently 34 percent of all smartphone owners don’t even have a simple code to lock the screen.
The whole password game is completely broken. If you are anything like most people, you have signed up for 4,853 websites with the same username/password combination for most of them. And you have probably used 123456 as a password at some point. It might be easy to remember, but if just one of your username/password combinations gets stolen – which seems to happen just about every day – you might as well hand over the keys to the car, the house and the hidden bank accounts.
Sign up for something like Lastpass, 1Password or Dashlane, which not only helps you store encrypted passwords, but creates nearly unguessable passwords that I promise you will not make the worst password list.
Your “snail” mail is protected by federal law. If people try to intercept your mail, they may suffer years in jail. But once that mail has been opened, put in your trash and out on the curb, it’s fair game.
So buy yourself a shredder (this is a great personal shredder that I own). Any important documents with bank information, health records, private details or anything even remotely interesting to would-be snoops – shred it immediately when you are done with it.
Don’t Overshare on Social Media
Some privacy gurus will tell you never to use social media. After all, they collect insane amounts of information about you. If you are hell-bent on protecting your privacy, I would avoid it, but I really don’t see the harm in it, just as long as you are smart about it.
First, I would strongly consider checking your privacy settings and understanding what you are sharing with others.
Second, don’t overshare. Getting into heated discussions about hot topics, badmouthing your boss or tweeting all day while you are supposed to be working may cost you your current or future job.
Also, social media has become an integral tool for robbers to plan their next targets; 80% of robbers apparently check social media for potential targets, so you might want to avoid posting about your latest escapade at the local watering hole.
Encrypt Your Hard Drive
Most people have some sort of password on their computer (if you don’t, do that now) that gives some protection to the stuff on their hard drive. But what most people don’t realize is that if that hard drive were to be taken out of the computer and attached to another computer, just about anyone could access it. To protect that data, you can encrypt the hard drive to prevent people from accessing your files without your encryption key.
On a Mac, you can easily encrypt your hard drive in a few easy steps with FileVault; with a PC it’s a bit more complicated, but still not all that hard. It’s also a good idea to encrypt your phone (the newest iPhones and Android phones are encrypted by default).
By the way, I cringe every time someone says “there is nothing important on my computer.”
It’s just insanely false.
Don’t be that person.
Two-step authentication puts in an additional level of security by requiring a second form of authentication in addition to your “regular password” to access your account. The second form of authentication comes in various shapes and sizes, such as a keycard with a randomly generated password, a fingerprint or even a retina scan.
Until recently, two-step authentication was not available to regular people, but many services, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo, have rolled out two-step authentication. For the second form of authentication, you can get a text, a phone call, an authentication app or a single-use code that you can put in your wallet. So in addition to logging with your normal password, with two-step verification you’ll have to go through the added trouble of entering a second code. This will “approve” the computer you’re currently logging in from for 30 days, so you don’t have to do this every time you log in.
You might be thinking, “I have enough trouble with one password, who wants to bother with a second password?” Well, it’s easier, that you think – How and Why to Turn On Two-Step Verification for Your Apple, Google, and Yahoo Accounts.
It’s a sure bet that people will connect to Wi-Fi in a coffee shop or a public place these days. And there is nothing wrong with that, but you should be aware that your information may not be safe. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No, but I wouldn’t be doing any Internet banking, entering sensitive passwords or sending any sensitive data through public Wi-Fi. If you would like to ensure that your browsing traffic is safe, consider signing up for a VPN (virtual private network) service.
Even if you implement everything discussed here, the truth of the matter is that any highly motivated person can steal your personal information. The key here is to try to close as many holes as you possibly can.
There is no perfect plan, but implementing these steps will go a long way.