How to protect your identity
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Find out what personal information is at risk online, how it can be stolen, and what you can do to protect yourself against identity theft.
What is identity theft
Identity theft is the illegal act of obtaining, viewing, duplicating, or using someone's personal details without their consent. With the rise of the Internet and advancements in digital technology, this troubling trend has only grown more prevalent in our modern era.
What information can be stolen on the Internet
Below, we outline the main types of personal data that are frequently targeted by cybercriminals.
Personal identifying information (PII)
- Date of birth
- Home address
- Phone number
- Bank account numbers
- Debit and credit card numbers
- PINs and passwords from bank accounts
- Credit reports
- Medical history
- Insurance data
- Prescription information
Social media accounts
- Logins and passwords
- Personal messages
- Photos and videos
Employment and education data
- Salary information
- Data on education and qualifications
- Current location
- Movement history
Online shopping information
- Purchase history
- Consumer preferences
- Shipping information
Internet behavior data
- Search history
- Visited websites
- Information about watched videos
- Email content
- Contact information
- Mailbox logins and passwords
- Facial photos
- Voice recognition data
How stolen data can be used
Unauthorized access to banking information can lead to illegal transactions. For instance, in 2013, Target fell prey to a massive cyberattack, resulting in the theft of data from 40 million credit and debit cards.
Cybercriminals often target usernames and passwords, granting them unauthorized access to individuals' social media profiles. A notable case occurred in 2014, when numerous celebrities became victims of the iCloud phishing attack, compromising their personal photos and information.
Creating false identities and identity fraud
The theft of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) can pave the way for the creation of fraudulent documents and invoices. Such fraudulent practices can subsequently be used to unlawfully secure loans or even access medical services.
Selling information to third parties
Data, once harvested or illegally obtained, can be sold to advertisers or other companies for tailored marketing efforts. A glaring example of this was the scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, where the personal data of millions of people was misappropriated for political campaign targeting.
Cyber and industrial espionage
Cyber and industrial espionage present significant threats in the digital age. State-sponsored and corporate hackers infiltrate systems to extract classified commercial or defense-related data. A striking example is the 2015 breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which compromised the data of over 22 million government employees.
Black market and criminal organizations
Personal information can be traded on the black market for numerous illegal activities, including human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Phishing attacks and social engineering
Compromised data can serve as a springboard for subsequent attacks on a person's acquaintances or colleagues, as seen in the 2014 cyber attack on Sony Pictures.
How to protect your identity on the Internet
Basic security principles
A complex password that mixes letters (both uppercase and lowercase), numbers, and special symbols, is your fortress against unwarranted intrusions and can protect against identity theft. Here are the advantages of using such passwords:
- Defense against dictionary attacks: opting for simple, frequently used passwords exposes you to "dictionary attacks," where hackers try a sequence of standard words or patterns. A strong password minimizes this vulnerability as it's far less predictable.
- Withstanding brute force: the diversity and length of a password exponentially increases the number of possible combinations. With a complex password, attempting to brute-force it, even with high-end computing power, becomes a daunting task.
- Guarding against sequential break-ins: if cyber intruders compromise one account with a simple password, they might be able to replicate the same on other platforms. Diversifying passwords and making each complex reduces this possibility.
- Maintaining overall safety: whether it's your personal files, bank details, social platforms, or email, a strong password acts as a shield that thwarts unauthorized breaches.
Two-factor authentication (2FA)
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an additional layer of security that helps keep your online accounts safe. It requires not only a username and password to log into your account, but also something else, such as a physical token or a confirmation code sent to your smartphone. Here's what you get when you use 2FA:
- Hacking protection: even if attackers get your password, they will need a second factor to log into your account, making it much harder to hack.
- Notifications about login attempts: many 2FA systems notify you when someone tries to log in to your account, so you can quickly detect suspicious activity.
- Suitable for multiple services: 2FA can be configured for most modern internet services, from email to bank accounts, strengthening overall security.
- Easy to use: although 2FA adds an extra step to the login process, it is usually quick and easy.
Regular software updates play a key role in strengthening your digital security. Let's explain why:
- Plugging security gaps: the tech world is an ongoing chess game. Developers are continually scouring their software for weaknesses. When they find vulnerabilities, they quickly roll out updates—these are like fortified walls that prevent adversaries from exploiting them. Without these updates, you're leaving the door open to cyber attacks.
- Fending off malicious software: modern updates typically come equipped with defenses against the latest strains of viruses and malware. Keeping your software up-to-date translates results in a stronger system.
- Improved performance: in addition to mere security enhancements, updates often come bundled with performance optimizations and feature additions that make your software run more smoothly.
- Keeping up with security protocols: the digital landscape is ever-evolving, and security protocols and regulations follow suit. Regular updates ensure that your software meets contemporary security standards.
- Privacy protection: armed with the latest software versions, cybercriminals have a tougher time accessing and compromising your personal data, be it passwords, financial details, or personal communication.
Be careful about the apps you install and run
The digital realm is teeming with innovation and convenience, but it is also full of potential threats. Particularly for desktop users on platforms like Windows and Mac, it's important to be careful.
- Trust in authenticity: always prioritize software from recognized and authorized developers. These trusted entities often undergo rigorous testing and quality control to ensure user safety. Venturing into unknown territories with software from unverified developers is a risk few should take.
- Beware of tampered software: third-party modifications, such as those found on torrent sites, can be Trojan horses. They may appear harmless or even useful on the surface, but may contain malicious code. Once activated, this code can grant intruders virtually unchecked access to your system.
- Mobile app vigilance: the smartphone era has brought with it a plethora of apps, but not all of them have the user's best interests at heart. Some apps, especially those created by rogue developers, can siphon off a wealth of your personal data, ranging from your precise location to IP address, only to sell to the highest bidder.
- Browser extensions can be a double-edged sword. While they can enhance your web experience, they can also be nefarious in nature, or become compromised over time. Under the control of bad actors, extensions can log your online activities, capture sensitive credentials, and even siphon off your financial data.
Financial data protection
Keeping a vigilant eye on your accounts is crucial in today's digital landscape. Here's the lowdown on how account monitoring can act as a shield for your personal data:
- Spot fraud early: by consistently checking your bank card statements, you can quickly catch any unauthorized transactions. These anomalies could be telltale signs of fraud or identity theft involving your financial details.
- Prompt action: if something seems amiss, timely detection allows you to contact your financial institution immediately. Taking immediate action, such as freezing your account or canceling your card, can limit the potential impact.
- Double-check subscriptions: account monitoring can also serve as a financial health check. Scrutinizing regular deductions will help ensure that you’re not being charged for services you no longer need or, worse, for fictitious ones you never subscribed to.
- Cultivate digital responsibility: habitual account monitoring fosters a proactive mindset towards your financial well-being. By keeping a regular one on and understanding the nuances of your financial inflow and outflow, you not only protect yourself but also build your confidence in navigating the digital financial realm.
Personal data protection
Beware of phishing
Phishing websites and emails stand as one of the primary culprits behind data breaches. It's crucial to stay alert and not get hoodwinked by these deceitful tactics. At its core, phishing is a crafty maneuver designed to trick you into divulging sensitive details like passwords or credit card information. These phishing attempts often come cloaked as reputable online services, but their true intent is to pilfer your personal data.
Moreover, certain phishing emails come loaded with malware, ready to compromise your computer. Always exercise caution—refrain from clicking on dubious attachments or links, especially if something feels even remotely off. Trust your instincts and prioritize your online safety.
Social media privacy management
Protecting your personal information online is paramount, and managing your privacy on social media platforms is a vital component of this protective strategy. Here's a breakdown of the importance of social media privacy management:
- Controlled visibility: it's essential to tailor your privacy settings meticulously. By doing so, you decide who can view your personal details, photos, and status updates, keeping potential intruders or scammers at bay.
- Safeguarding against identity fraud: limiting the personal data you share publicly — such as your date of birth, home address, or phone number — significantly decreases the risk of it being exploited for fraudulent activities.
- Reducing digital footprints: advertisers and other third-party entities often snoop on your social media behaviors. By fine-tuning your privacy preferences or employing ad blockers like AdGuard, you can curtail the amount of data these entities glean about you.
- Avoiding unwanted scrutiny: diminishing the public visibility of your profile and interactions shields you from unsolicited attention and potential backlash.
Virtual Private Networks (VPN)
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an essential asset in fortifying your online privacy and security. Let's delve into how a VPN bolsters your digital defenses:
- Robust encryption: at its core, a VPN establishes an encrypted conduit between your device and the Internet. This ensures that any information passing through is securely cloaked, shielding it from prying eyes.
- Masking your IP: one of the primary functions of a VPN is to camouflage your actual IP address, substituting it with that of the VPN server. This obfuscation makes it challenging for websites and digital trackers to pinpoint your location or discern your identity.
- Safeguarding public Wi-Fi use: public Wi-Fi hotspots, though convenient, are breeding grounds for cyber threats. A VPN acts as a protective barrier, encrypting your data, ensuring you remain secure even on potentially vulnerable networks.
- Overcoming geo-restrictions: beyond security, a VPN also offers the luxury of bypassing geo-blocks. This means you can access content that might be restricted in your region.
- Diluting digital footprints: in our data-driven world, countless entities are vying for a slice of your online activity data. A VPN muddies these waters, offering you an added layer of privacy and making it significantly tougher for these entities to shadow your digital journey.
- Defending against phishing and malware: some of the more advanced VPNs come armed with inbuilt features designed to thwart known malicious sites, acting as a first line of defense against phishing attempts and potential malware.
Historically, antivirus software carved out its niche predominantly within the Windows ecosystem, given its appeal as the primary target for cyber threats. While platforms like Mac have been relatively insulated, they aren't entirely immune. As for mobile platforms, while they don't house antivirus solutions in the conventional sense, they do host apps that emulate some antivirus functionalities. Let's dive into the core capabilities of a traditional antivirus tailored for Windows or Mac:
- Malware detection & neutralization: at its core, an antivirus software vigilantly scans your system for malicious entities, including viruses, trojans, worms, and other malevolent programs that jeopardize your digital safety.
- Phishing safeguards: a plethora of antivirus suites come equipped with phishing deterrents, which serve to barricade sketchy sites eager to dupe you into surrendering sensitive information. That said, modern browsers have stepped up their game and often incorporate similar protective measures.
- Web traffic surveillance: venturing online? Many antivirus tools maintain a watchful eye on your online escapades, promptly alerting you if you're treading into potentially perilous territories or initiating risky downloads.
- Firewall fortifications: whether native or allied with the antivirus, firewalls serve as gatekeepers, scrutinizing both incoming and outgoing digital traffic, and nipping any suspicious activity in the bud.
- Timely updates & reinforcements: the cyber threat landscape is perpetually evolving. Recognizing this, antivirus solutions routinely receive updates, ensuring they're well-equipped to fend off the latest threats.
- Educative insights: going beyond mere protection, certain antivirus brands also provide insightful resources, empowering users with knowledge on potential risks and guiding them toward safer digital behaviors.
- Adaptability to mobile: it's worth noting that some functionalities, traditionally associated with antivirus tools, have found their way onto mobile platforms. Case in point: AdGuard for Android and AdGuard for iOS, which not only act as shields against phishing sites but also stymie trackers.
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Utilizing a temporary email can be a powerful way to protect your identity and bolster your online privacy. Let's delve deeper into its multifaceted advantages:
- Anonymity assurance: temporary email platforms empower you to interact and engage without laying bare your primary email identity, ensuring your digital footprint remains concealed.
- Fortified against spam: venturing into one-time registrations or fleeting subscriptions? A temporary email acts as a buffer, ensuring your main inbox remains unsullied by a deluge of unwanted messages.
- A safeguard during registrations: treading cautiously with new websites? Utilizing a temporary email during sign-ups for dubious platforms can drastically diminish the likelihood of your main email being compromised or misused.
- Phishing deterrent: by design, disposable email addresses serve their purpose and then vanish, drastically slashing the odds of phishing attacks targeting your primary account.
- Impenetrable to trackers: several ephemeral email providers have upped the ante by incorporating features that stonewall trackers lurking within emails, ensuring that your digital movements remain private.
- Zero strings attached: whether you're validating an account, availing a promotional offer, or merely dipping your toes into a new platform, temporary emails let you do so without tying you down to any lasting obligations.
Encrypting data in device storage
Encrypting the stored data on your device provides a vital shield against unauthorized access, especially if your gadget — be it a laptop, phone, or tablet — goes missing or falls into the wrong hands. It's crucial to recognize that our devices are reservoirs of invaluable and sensitive details: from passwords and saved browser data to document scans and private correspondences. A breach into this trove by malevolent actors can lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Thankfully, contemporary operating systems come equipped with integrated disk or file system encryption functionalities. Activating these tools is not just advisable — it's imperative for your digital security.
BitLocker: an all-encompassing disk encryption tool, BitLocker is available in select editions of Windows starting from Vista. Seamlessly integrating with TPM (Trusted Platform Module), it provides a fortified layer of security by encrypting the entire disk.
Encrypting File System (EFS): with EFS, users have the flexibility to encrypt individual files and folders specifically within the NTFS file system.
FileVault 2: available on macOS, FileVault 2 encrypts the full boot disk, utilizing XTS-AES-128 encryption with a 256-bit key.
Disk Utility: within macOS, the Disk Utility also allows users to construct encrypted disk volumes employing AES-256.
Data protection: iOS showcases a multi-key framework, employing several keys for robust file system level data protection. Every encryption key is uniquely linked to a device ID and user passcode.
File-level encryption: Apple amped up its security game with the introduction of an added layer of file-level encryption starting from iOS 10, supplementing its existing encryption protocols.
Full disk encryption (Full disk encryption or FDE): implemented as the standard encryption technique since Android 5.0, FDE ensures the entirety of device data is encrypted. Upon booting the device, it prompts for a PIN or password.
File-based encryption or FBE: introduced in Android 7.0, FBE offers the convenience of encrypting individual files and directories using distinct keys, streamlining the management of varied access levels within a single device.
Beyond the encryption mechanisms highlighted above, several pivotal settings tailored for mobile devices deserve mention:
- Lock screen configuration: opt for a robust password or PIN, favoring them over simplistic patterns or biometrics. Deactivate notification previews (spanning from SMS to banking app notifications) on the lock screen. This step obstructs unauthorized individuals from viewing the 2FA code in case of phone misplacement.
- App permissions: regularly review and regulate app permissions, ensuring apps aren't accessing superfluous data or device functionalities.
- Blocking unknown sources: deactivate the allowance for installing apps from unverified sources.
- Safe browsing: equip your browser with safe browsing settings, effectively curtailing access to malicious sites.
- Remote control: activate features that allow remote location tracking and data erasure should the device go missing.
- Disable unnecessary services: to curtail potential security breaches, turn off services like Bluetooth and NFC when they're not actively needed.
In today's digital age, falling prey to an identity thief is an ever-present risk. With tools like credit card skimmers and spyware software becoming more sophisticated, our personal information is under constant threat. Phishing emails cleverly disguised as legitimate communications aim to trick us into providing sensitive data. Even joining a seemingly harmless Wi-Fi network can open the door to those wanting to steal your identity. It's essential to be proactive and knowledgeable to protect yourself. By being aware of the threats and taking the necessary precautions, you can greatly reduce the chance of becoming a victim of identity theft. Stay informed, stay vigilant, and always prioritize your digital safety.