It’s always risky using the Internet, but if you know exactly what the risks are, you can takes steps toward preventing hacks and other compromises to your online security. Here are some of the factors that make us vulnerable online — you may be surprised by what you find:
Uniqueness of Username
It may sound odd, but the more unique your online username — whether a social media handle or blog pseudonym — the easier it is for online marketers and scammers to track you. Researchers at the French National Institute of Computer Science (INRIA) studied over 10 million usernames and found that 50% of names used on one site could be used to link the same person to another. Scammers can build a profile using information from the linked accounts, then send convincing, well-crafted “phishing” messages to the user based on the data, often leading to an inadvertent download of malicious software. Our suggestion? Create diverse usernames for your social web usage.
Cookies and Auto-Fill
If you’re using a public computer, then you might want to consider deleting or disabling “cookies.” This encrypted code may include information like ID numbers, pages visited, login details–even advertising code. Hackers can possibly track your information using enabled cookies. (Not sure how to delete them on your browser? Check here for tips.)
Additionally, your computer may have an “auto-fill” feature that automatically adds in data you’ve typed in other websites (like name, contact information, and addresses) that can also be used to your detriment should your network be compromised.
Hackers often take advantage of accounts by finding the (often easily guessed) passwords for one account, tracing your profile information to other accounts, and then hacking into those, too. (The moral of the story: Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.) Not sure how secure your password is? The website howsecureismypassword.net will calculate about how long it’ll take for a determined hacker to break into your account. Pick a long, strong, secure password with numbers, letters, and symbols included. If it’s so difficult that even you have trouble remembering it, then try a password manager like LastPass, which will keep track of your passwords on multiple sites for you (you’ll just need to memorize a master password.) LastPass is completely free, and offers support for various web browsers and mobile phones.
Lack of Firewall
A computer firewall prevents your data from being accessed while logged into the Internet or on a shared computer network. It’s also responsible for filtering out messages and attacks, depending on your personally customized security settings. Make sure to go to your computer’s “preferences” and set the radio button (or checkbox) to “on.”
Password Recovery Questions
A new study by Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington finds that the questions websites pose to users when they’ve forgotten their particular login information. (Questions like, “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” or “What was your favorite teacher’s name?” are the kinds most often used.) During the study, 32 acquaintances of webmail users were asked to guess the answers to certain recovery questions of friends’ accounts–and they got the answer right nearly a fifth of the time. AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all use “secret questions” to trigger password reset, which could possibly leave your account open to hackers (this is what happened to Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008).
There’s no real individual solution to this problem, yet — except periodically changing your password and keeping the original hidden somewhere safe, so you won’t have to go through the password recovery process.