22 January 2018

When it comes to protecting your data, the time to act is now

Identity theft is on the rise in Britain, and young people are most at risk. According to fraud prevention experts,  (This link will open in a new window)identity fraud hit a 13-year high in the UK in 2016, with 173,000 recorded cases. Twenty-five thousand of those involved people under 30.

The rise of digital services in everything from e-commerce to banking makes it easier than ever to conduct all manner of financial business from our laptops or smartphones. We can order groceries, send Christmas gifts, and check our rapidly dwindling bank balances without ever leaving the comfort of our homes.

But convenience has a price, and the more of our financial lives we carry out online, the more we expose ourselves to cybersecurity risks. Recent incidents such as the  (This link will open in a new window)Equifax data breach, which jeopardised 143 million of people's private information in both the U.K. and the U.S., illustrated the urgency of improving data security. The massive WannaCry malware attack that  (This link will open in a new window)“crippled" the NHS highlighted the growing threat of cyber criminality and the need for dynamic cyber defense systems.

While we expect major companies and banks to create security protocols to protect our data, some of the responsibility stays with us. Although cyberattacks are on the rise, there are measures we can take to protect ourselves. Here's how:

New laws to protect our data privacy come into force this year

New EU rules in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and a UK Data Protection Bill will mean a dramatic change for all organisations holding customer data, updating earlier UK privacy standards and giving us new protections.

The new legislation will strengthen data privacy and is based on the principle that we should have greater control over our personal data.

The types of personal data that must be protected has been expanded to include DNA, web cookies, and IP addresses. And all companies will need to be open and transparent about how they intend to use data, so pay attention to their data usage policies.

Avoid logging into sensitive sites on public connections

Unless you urgently need to check your email or bank account or make a purchase, don't use public wifi networks to conduct sensitive transactions. Doing so exposes you to increased risk of identity theft. If the app you're using lacks proper encryption, hackers may find easy access to your log-in credentials and personal data.

Hackers don't need to be particularly sophisticated to steal your data, photos, videos, and other digital personal assets. The Harvard Business Review notes that there are many free online tutorials - boasting millions of views - on how to hack public wifi connections. Some carry out "Man in the Middle" or "Evil Twin" attacks, in which they either hijack your connection or create misleading hotspots through which they'll grab your data.

Your best bet is to avoid logging into your email or financial sites until you're on a secure connection. In the absence of that, make sure the sites you're using begin with "https" and have a lock symbol indicating that they're encrypted. And use your judgement when clicking links from or sending information in response to text promotions or notifications. If your bank sends you a text with an account alert, call the publicly listed phone number to verify that the information is legitimate.

Diversify and secure your passwords

Considering that an entire generation of people has virtually grown up on the internet, you'd think we'd be beyond using the same, easily guessable passwords for every account. Yet in a survey of 2,000 web users from the US and UK, three out of four used the same password for multiple accounts, and most hadn't changed these security codes in at least five years.

Improving your password security is perhaps the most effective step you can take to protect your online accounts and your identity. Sign up for a free password manager service, and you'll need just one password to access all of your security credentials. Some will help you generate secure passwords for every account, so you don't have to come up with the complex combinations yourself. They'll also auto-fill your data when you go to your trusted websites. Once you do the initial set-up, there's little legwork for you.

You can add an additional layer of security to your log-ins by setting up two-factor authentication whenever it's offered. Once you input your log-in information, you'll receive a verification code via text or email, depending on how you've set it up. It's a small step and it takes only seconds, but it can be helpful in preventing hackers from accessing your data.

Cyberattacks are a reality of life, especially as we do more of our personal transactions on the web. While there will always be hackers looking to steal data and people's identities, you can empower yourself to reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

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About the author

Casey Hynes

Casey Hynes is a freelance journalist writing about fintech, AI, economic development and personal finance. She's written for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

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