Protecting Your Accounts in the Digital World

Phones, tablets and the apps built for them are extending their reach into the world of personal finance. You just can’t beat the convenience and real-time access they offer.

But with convenience comes some risk, so it’s helpful to develop — or refresh yourself on — habits to guard against hackers, con artists and other forms of electronic thievery. Here are a few:

Take your passwords seriously: Yes, this first one is the most obvious one, and there’s a good chance you’ve already rolled your eyes. But hardly a month goes by without a story about a hack and how Americans’ most common passwords are “123456” or “password.” So clearly something’s not getting through.

Best practices on crafting passwords abound online: these examples are representative of what IT professionals preach. If you’d rather not hassle with keeping a running list of complex passwords that you’re continually pestered to update, you may consider a password manager system that will do that and more for you. 

Check out the sites you visit: When arriving at a website, especially one where you’ll be entering personal or financial information, look for a closed padlock up in the web browser’s address bar and a URL that begins with “https.” These indicators mean that the site is secure and that the information you send will be encrypted.

Be stingy with your information: Why do companies need your phone number or date of birth just to sell you a pair of shoes? They don’t — they just want it, because that sort of customer data is valuable to them. They may even sell your information to other companies. When registering or checking out online, fill in only the boxes marked as required. And if an email arrives asking for more information, don’t provide it.

Use credit cards: In cases of fraud, your liability with a credit card is capped by law at $50. Debit cards come with protections, as well, but there’s a key difference: Since it can take some time to untangle an incident of fraud, would you rather work to recover your own money (as you would with a debit card), or dispute charges before paying for them (as you would when fraud occurs on a credit card)? 

Guard your phone: Smartphones don’t come equipped with the same virus protections that your desktop computer has, and they are more easily lost or stolen. Many phones come with an option to lock it with a passcode or fingerprint. Take advantage of this safety measure.

Sign up for alerts: It’s tough to stay on top of everything, so why not take advantage of your bank or credit union offering to keep a look out for you? Financial institutions such as FedChoice Federal Credit Union will text or email to let you know about recent transactions, low balances and other activity on your accounts — for free. Just tell them what you want to track.

Forgo the public Wi-Fi: It’s often the next thing you do at the coffee shop, after placing your order, but don’t hop on to the free Wi-Fi. Many hot spots don’t bother with encryption, meaning your data is exposed to anyone else sipping a cup and clever enough to know how to intercept it.

Always log off: Think of your computer the same way you do the lights in your home: When no one’s using it, turn it off. Staying connected to the Internet gives hackers full-time access to what’s on your computer.

Peter Lewis, NerdWallet

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