By Paul S. McNulty, CFP®
Every other day we hear about online security breaches experienced by major companies, from Yahoo to Equifax to Capital One, and even the IRS. Because we rely so heavily on the internet to conduct financial transactions and manage our lives, we can expect these events to continue.
Since your personal information is owned by companies that store their information online and in their databases, it’s impossible to avoid these situations entirely. But there are some practical steps you can take to ensure that your personal information and hard-earned money are as secure as possible.
1. Watch Your Wi-Fi
We’re so used to using our phones everywhere we go that we often don’t think about the security of whatever Wi-Fi network we connect to. But it might be worth it to give it extra thought, especially when you are shopping online while using public Wi-Fi. Avoid submitting your credit card information unless you are connected to a private, secure wireless network. In other words, save your shopping for home or another trusted network, not for your local coffee shop.
If you do need to enter personal information on the go, turn your Wi-Fi off and use your phone data, connecting you to your more-secure cellular network, or consider investing in a virtual private network (VPN) so you can use public Wi-Fi with more peace of mind.
2. Screen Your Emails
Phishing scams show up in your inbox regularly, even if you’ve applied stringent security settings to your email account. If an email sneaks in that looks like it is from a financial institution, do not click on any of the links or open any attachments. Most financial institutions will send you a secure message through your account rather than a direct email. Delete the email or report it to your provider.
Before you click on a link in any email, check two things: the sender’s email address and the link destination. Phishers often try to look legitimate by showing up in your inbox with a legitimate name, but if you hover your mouse over the sender’s name, you will see the full email address and be able to determine if it is from a trusted source or not. Use the same tactic with the clickable links inside the email message. Hover your mouse over the hyperlink and see where the link will take you. If it looks suspicious, delete the email. To be safe, when shopping online, type the retailer’s URL into your browser instead of clicking email links.
3. Strengthen Your Passwords
Your first line of defense online is passwords. Your passwords are the gates between criminals and things like your financial accounts, so you want them to be as strong as possible. For passwords, strength comes from complexity. Aim to use a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, special characters, and numbers. To make them easier to remember, choose a phrase or acronym that you created yourself.
In addition to strong passwords, you want to make sure you have separate passwords. Don’t use the same one, or a simple variation of the same one, for multiple accounts or websites. Also, avoid using your name, government ID numbers, address, or other personal information that can be easily found, such as the names of your children or pets.
Even if you have a strong password, it is good practice to change it 3 to 4 times a year. Don’t store your passwords somewhere they can easily be found (like a sticky note on your computer!), and, by all means, don’t disclose them to anyone! When offered, add a second barrier to entry in addition to your password with two-factor authentication.
4. Set Up Alerts
Many financial institutions offer customizable notifications. You can choose to receive alerts for transactions placed outside of your geographical area, purchases above certain amounts, or instances when your credit card is used without the card being present. If you receive a notification for a charge you did not make, alert your credit card company or bank immediately and freeze the account.
Notifications aside, be sure to regularly review your credit card transactions. Make it a habit to check for unknown line items or irregularities. Inspect your credit report and look for errors in your personal information or lines of credit. If you see anything amiss in these reports, your identity may have been stolen. You can get three free credit reports a year from annualcreditreport.com and a free TransUnion and Equifax report once a week from creditkarma.com.
While it can feel unnerving to think about cyber attacks and hacking, implementing some of these tips may help you feel more confident and can help you reduce your risk. If you have questions about your online information or how we work to protect your information, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (781) 995-0253.
Paul McNulty is the founder of Boston Metro Advisor with over 20 years of experience helping people navigate the ups and downs of the economy toward the financial future they envision. His education consists of a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Rhode Island and the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®) professional designation.
Paul’s experience and education have made him a multi-faceted professional capable of assisting people with virtually all their financial needs. His services include every facet of retirement planning, from 401(k) rollover services and income planning to wealth management and estate planning. Paul has been active in his community over the years as a youth sports coach. When he’s not spending time with his wife, Cindy, and their two children, who are both recent college graduates, Paul enjoys reading, playing golf, and fishing. Learn more about Paul by connecting with him on LinkedIn.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.