Every year security experts like me remind you once again of the top cyber threats to watch out for over the holidays. The Twelve Thefts, the Twelve Scams, the Twelve Cons of Christmas etc.
Rather than crowd the room with more of the same, I thought it might be more helpful this year to give you Twelve Tasks — a dozen concrete steps that you can easily and instantly implement and which could beef up your personal security forever.
So here goes.
Here are 12 things you can do for the end of this year, one per day, that could seriously reduce your exposure to the 12 of whatever scams the other experts have reminded you of:
- Check your credit reports. Might seem obvious, but when was the last time you did? Might also be a good thing to leave this to after the Holidays, when any fraudulent charges or accounts are more likely to appear.
- Set up a reminder system. Many email programs, like Outlook, allow you to set up regular reminders to do certain things. Why not set regular alerts to remind you to do easily overlooked tasks like check your credit report or change an important password.
- Change your top 5 most important passwords. Speaking of passwords, promise yourself that during the month of December you will change the passwords of your top five or even top three most important accounts — like your bank accounts. And make sure you change them to something long, strong and random (see tip # 9 below).
- Encrypt your data. There are plenty of low cost and even free (open source) encryption tools that will encrypt individual folders or even entire drives, on your desktop and your laptop. Once encrypted this data will be completely protected from snoops and thieves.
- Scan now and set to scan weekly. A good anti-virus product should be able to do a pretty thorough and deep scan of your computer and sniff out anything that shouldn't be there. While you're at it, set your anti-virus software to automatically do a thorough, deep scan at least once a week.
- Do a deeper scan with Microsoft's malicious software removal tool. Not all anti-virus software catches everything, so maybe you should try Microsoft's free Malicious Software Removal tool which can often find malware that other programs cannot. You can download it free from http://www.microsoft.com/security/malwareremove/default.aspx
- Set up banking alerts. Most financial institutions will allow you to set up alerts, by email, text, and even phone, to immediately notify you of any transactions on your accounts of a certain type or above a certain amount. I have my alerts set up for any check, ATM withdrawals, electronic funds transfer etc. above a very small amount. If I visit an ATM to make a withdrawal, within minutes my phone is telling me what just happened.
- Use a secure browsing tool. There are now many secure browser plug-ins that will quickly scan a web site for malware before you click on it - a great protection against SEO poisoning, where malicious and infected websites can be listed high in search rankings making them more likely to be clicked on. Many security products, like ZoneAlarm Extreme, have secure browsing built in. And there are also free standalone versions, like Finjan Secure Browsing (http://securebrowsing.finjan.com/)
- Switch from passwords to pass phrases. Pass phrases are a better way to create and remember long and complex passwords. A pass phrase is a one line story about you that no-one would be able to guess. For example, the single line "I got married in Chicago Illinois on August 3rd 1988" creates a very long and strong 13-character password — IgmiCIoA31988 — by taking the first letter of every word, as well as numbers. And because it contains a random mix of upper case, lower case and numbers, it's even harder to guess or crack.
- Do a home security audit. Take a walk around your home and view it like an identity thief might. And not just a burglar, but even someone you might invite or allow into your home. Remove any temptations, especially financial information and statements, and put them somewhere it would take anyone a long time to find.
- Make a copy of everything in your wallet or purse. Not your smart phone or lip gloss, but any documents like credit and store cards that you always carry on you. If your wallet or purse is stolen, you'll know exactly what the thieves have their hands on and how to respond.
- Take a closer look at your Facebook privacy settings. If you haven't already made yourself intimately acquainted with your Facebook privacy settings, spend some time there over the holidays. Make sure you're making full use of the wide range of privacy options available to help keep your page and information safe.