By Michelle Ricker May 13, 2021
Summary: Cyber security is a big deal, and with the internet being a huge part of our lives, it’s never been more important. We’ve rounded up our top ten tips to help you stay safer online without feeling overwhelmed. Whether you’re starting out by clearing your cache or ready to invest in antivirus software, EarthLink is here to help.
Staying secure online can feel a little overwhelming. With high-level data breaches making headlines, it can even seem… really challenging to even know where to start. Get a VPN? Sign up for password a manager? Just unplug everything?
But taking extra steps to safeguard your personal data online is worth it — and it doesn’t have to be difficult.
We’ve rounded up our top 10 tips to help you feel safer online. Even if you do experience a data breach, taking these steps can mean the difference between hackers finding outdated, harmless information (like your Top Eight list from Myspace) and discovering information on the dark web that’s really important to your life right now (like your bank account passcode and routing number).
If you’ve got a social media presence, you’re probably familiar with how to change your profiles to private or public. But are you aware of how much personal information is still on those profiles? Even private accounts can offer up personal information like birthdates, anniversaries, or other common password hints (like where you went to high school or your mother’s maiden name).
By keeping information that you use for account security off the internet, you make it harder for someone to successfully impersonate you.
Take time to make the personal information on your profile private (or even remove it). Maybe even change the year of your birthdate on Facebook. Just be mindful of what you post going forward and how public you make it.
You’d be surprised at how much personal data — and even information about your friends and family — is hanging out in your browser cache and cookies. Clearing your cache on a regular basis will clean up your online browsing history. It might even make your device run faster. If you want to keep your personalized settings on a few sites, most browsers will let you list favorites that don’t need cleared. Easy peasy.
Many of us have our contact information, home address, and even payment information saved on our devices or favorite shopping apps. It may make online checkout or forms easier to complete, but autofill can be a security risk in two ways.
First, if someone steals your device, that information is readily accessible. Having all of this at someone else’s fingertips makes you an easy target.
Second, websites can actually be built to collect autofill information without your knowledge. While the only fields visible on the page may be a name and email address, it’s possible that the technical side of the site is collecting the other information stored in the selected autofill, such as an address. Rather than taking the chance, we recommend typing in the necessary information. Autofill may save you a few seconds, but it could cost you a whole lot.
Ever wonder why it’s important to install software updates instead of just clicking “remind me later”? Software updates do more than change the appearance of your app icons. They strengthen security measures, patch weak points, and keep your information safer. The older the software, the more time hackers have had to find its weak points. To make this really easy, opt for automatic updates so you barely have to think about it.
The importance of a secure password really cannot be overstated. (Trust us, we’ve tried.) At the most basic level, make sure you use a unique password on each account you have, and that you’re using a combination of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. The most secure passwords are a minimum of 11 characters and do not include any public personal information (like your birthday or Pa$$word). Consider using pass phrases to make them more memorable, or involve some technology to help you remember them all.
Using a password manager rather than your browser’s keychain is another way to stay more secure. Not only do password managers keep your login information safer, they can also generate secure, randomized passwords for new accounts. As an extra bonus, these vaults require a password to be opened. In other words, while someone who stole your device would have easy access to your browser’s keychain, breaking into your password vault would be far more difficult.
Having a secure password is great. Two-factor authentication takes it a step further by requiring an additional step before logging in. Typically, you enter your username and password, and then you’ll be sent a passcode via text or email to enter. It can also be a biometric measure (such as fingerprint or facial recognition) or a push notification on a secondary device. With two-factor authentication, your password alone is useless to hackers. Don’t want to go through this extra step for every account? Be sure to enable it for any that house valuable personal data.
While backing up your data might not prevent a data breach, it’ll make any breach you experience a little less stressful. If a hacker encrypts your data and demands a ransom to unencrypt it for you, it won’t be as big of a deal if you have it backed up already. If your only copy of something important has been stolen and encrypted by a thief, you’re more likely to feel like you have to pay them. It also gives you the opportunity to move important documents (like previous tax returns) off of your device and into storage, where hackers can’t reach them.
If routinely plugging in an external hard drive and copying files isn’t your thing, choose a cloud-based data backup system. It automates your file security across all your devices and uses sophisticated encryption methods to keep your data safe.
You’ve likely heard the expression that nothing comes free. Unfortunately, this is also true when it comes to email. Free email platforms — such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook — do come with a price, since most providers collect personal data on their users. This data can then be used to create a profit through targeted marketing opportunities or selling access to their user base to other services.
One option is to use a free email address for everyday communications, like newsletters and recipe-sharing, and keep the more data-heavy transactions — like purchases, donations, and banking information — private.
There are a variety of paid, secure email platforms available, but your internet service provider may offer one as part of their service, too.
Even if you’re great at catching email phishing attempts, you should still invest in dedicated software to protect your data. Installing robust and reputable anti-virus software is one of the best ways to protect yourself from online threats. It will watch out for ransomware and viruses and offer dark web monitoring. Once the software is set up, most programs practically run themselves and only require your attention when something is wrong.
As an added bonus, some antivirus software include a password vault and a VPN. That’s a one-stop shop for security.
One of the most comprehensive security tools available, a virtual private network (VPN) hides your information from just about anyone — including your internet service provider. This online anonymity prevents ad networks from tracking you (say goodbye to ads following you around the internet for those shoes you looked at once), protects data from government tracking, and can prevent hacking attacks or data breaches.
A VPN creates a secure tunnel between your device and the internet, so only the intended recipient can see your information (such as the website you’re ordering from). In fact, ISPs can only see the internet protocol (IP) address of the VPN, the timestamp from when you connected, and the amount of data you’re sending and receiving. And, installing a VPN is easier than you might think. You just have to remember to connect to it any time you get online.
Now that you have ten ways to stay more secure online, you’re ready to get started with the ones that work for you. While the more steps you take, the more secure your information is, every little bit helps.
If purchasing antivirus software or using a VPN don’t fit your situation right now, maybe it’s a good time to audit your passwords or set up two-factor authentication for your most important accounts. Any time is a great time to protect your data and personal information — before something happens.
Michelle Ricker is a Copywriter for EarthLink. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an M.A. in Communication and has more than 5 years of writing experience. She thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.
See all posts from Michelle Ricker.