One of the most important steps you can take to guard your privacy and protect yourself from becoming the victim of identity theft is to create secure passwords that are unlikely to be guessed by hackers. In fact, Microsoft's renowned TechNet blog calls this one of the "10 Immutable Laws of Security."
"Choose a complex [password]," says TechNet. "Don't use your dog's name, your anniversary date, or the name of the local football team. And don't use the word 'password'! Pick a password that has a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, number, punctuation marks, and so forth. Make it as long as possible. And change it often. Once you've picked a strong password, handle it appropriately. Don't write it down."
It's likely easier than you think for hackers to determine at least one of your passwords by using a computer program to systematically run through thousands and thousands of possible codes until they find a match. Passwords may also be compromised through large-scale data breaches at a company where you have an account, be it your bank, favorite retailer or medical provider.
That's why you should use a different password for every single banking, social networking, email and shopping account. Otherwise, if a cyber criminal is able to crack one code, then they will have automatic access to a treasure trove of your personal information scattered across the web, as well as all of your financial assets. Remember that online systems often have no way of distinguishing between you and an identity thief who knows your password.
Many people like to use variations on a single password, altering just one or two letters from account to account. However, this is also insufficient to protect you from identity thieves. Once they have cracked one account they will likely be able to gain access to the others by using slightly altered versions of the password they have in hand.
Try to avoid using any actual words or names in your passwords - random combinations of letters, numbers and symbols are far more secure. Cryptologist Bruce Schneier tells Politico that he suggests creating unique codes by abbreviating a memorable sentence using character substitutions.
"For example, the sentence 'Long time ago in a galaxy not far away at all' becomes Ltime@go-inag~faaa!.," writes Politico. "'When I was seven, my sister threw my stuffed rabbit in the toilet' becomes WIw7,mstmsritt."
Schneier says he personally uses a password manager to keep track of all of his different combinations so that he doesn't have to. This is the best option for anyone who doesn't have a photographic memory, especially when you consider that you should change all of your access codes regularly. Such systems act as secure digital vaults, storing login information for each of your online accounts behind an extra layer of security and protection.
When possible, enable two-step verification. Programs like Gmail provide this option, which requires you to enter a special code each time you log into your account from an unfamiliar device. Gmail sends you the passcode via text, making it unlikely that an identity thief would also be able to provide it.
In addition to creating secure passwords across all of your accounts and changing them frequently, you should also consider investing in a credit monitoring system. Such systems can't guarantee protection, should a hacker gain access to a financial account, but they can alert you to certain activity that may indicate fraud.