Updated: February 26, 2013 8:07PM
Due to the recent news reports about high-profile identity theft and Chinese hackers infiltrating American corporations to glean trade secrets, many friends and colleagues are asking me what they can do to protect their own computers and personal information. Frankly, most of my tips boil down to common sense.
First of all, I suggest you don’t use a single password for all of your websites. If you do, and someone gains access to that password, they’ll also gain easy access to your email, Facebook, credit cards and bank information. A good practice is to use a unique password for each site you access online. But did you know that “password” is the most common password in America — followed closely by “123456” and “secret”? Don’t use these.
Given the growing number of websites requiring logins, it can be hard to remember all of the different passwords you’ve set up. So rather than attaching the proverbial Post-it to your monitor (or secretly stashing it in your top desk drawer), you may want to use a password management system. That’s what I do — I use 1Password combined with DropBox, and it works perfectly across all my computers and mobile devices.
However, using different passwords won’t matter if the information hackers install monitoring software on your computer. These types of viruses have always been commonplace for Windows computers (because of the hundreds of millions of Windows PCs), but they’re now spreading to Macs as the system grows in popularity. While virus installers are well-disguised, your actions can prevent or encourage their installation — as I explain to my mother all too often, just because someone sends you something in email doesn’t mean you need to open it. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t know the sender of the email, don’t open it. If the subject of the email is unfamiliar (for instance, it’s about an account at a bank you don’t use), delete it.
If you decide to open it anyway, absolutely don’t click on the enclosed Web links, as they could be mislabeled links to deceive you. If the email appears to be from a familiar source (like your actual bank) and you decide to open it, rather than clicking on the enclosed Web link, visit the source’s official site. Any message that they would send you in an email will most likely also be in the system when you log in.
Even if you follow all of the above advice, you may still be vulnerable: Some viruses are sent with a seemingly legitimate source and subject matter, perhaps because your contacts’ accounts were already compromised. To protect yourself against these types of bugs, you should install recent virus protection software on your computer. I find that Norton AntiVirus works well on PCs, while Bitdefender Antivirus works well on Macs.
While you may not be the current focus of Chinese hackers or identity thieves, with these safety practices, you can avoid any potential attacks in the future.
Mark Tebbe donated his fee for this column to Cure Violence, which helps disrupt community crimes in Chicago.