It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Gather ‘round, for we are going to share a story about online security.

How many passwords do you have? If you’re like most people, the answer is “one”. How many accounts do you have? Once again, the common response would be, “lots”.

Too bad those two do not go well together.

You see, we aren’t the only people online. Many are there to cause damage to your content, whether for fame, money, or to accomplish a societal end. I’m not a fan. Doubtlessly, you aren’t either. All they want is to gain access to juicy content saved online. Documents, photos, e-mails, you name it, they’re out to get it. And what’s stopping them?

Just checking, how many passwords did you say you had?

A number of high-profile leaks of photos, celebrity and otherwise, have brought to the public consciousness the fragility of online storage. An expectation of privacy might only be that, an expectation. Is there anything we can do besides just hand our lives over to the do-baddies?

Yes. I’ll go over my Top 3 ways to help preserve your security and privacy online.

1. A strong password (for every account). No, I don’t mean feeding it spinach and sending it off to the gym 5 days a week. Years of “best practices” have convinced you that the best password is one you will never remember. Well, that’s no good! My favorite online comic tells it better than I ever could. Go click that link. Now, I’ll explain with less comedy than him. Longer is better. Period. Unusual combinations of characters that you’ll remember is perfect. Unless required, don’t expect writing like t#!$ (this) will do you any good. Computers are great at guessing. More characters take longer to check, which makes your password harder to crack. I’m also a huge fan of using password managers to create long, random passwords, then saving them for future use automatically. If you use Apple products, turn on iCloud Keychain. For cross-platform, 1Password is a good choice, and there are others, too. But what if they do get your password?

2. Two-factor authentication. Think of when you pay by debit card. You must scan the card in the terminal, and then either enter your PIN or sign a receipt. Two things must align for the transaction to be approved (or not contested later). However, when you sign on through a website, you enter your password and then…well, you’re in. Two-factor authentication adds a level of security which requires you to prove your identity, typically with your cell phone. When you get your login correct, the site will then send your phone (often by text message) a unique code that must be entered to sign on. The presumption is that a hacker might guess your password, but won’t also have your phone. It does add a step into signing on, but you can have systems not ask again based on a few variables, perhaps, whether you have changed location, or used a different device. I’ve activated this security feature on every service I have. You can see how to activate it for systems you use by checking here.

3. Be smart. Ok, so now you’ve created unique, memorable, yet difficult-for-computers-or-other-people-to-guess passwords. Then, you secured those accounts with a second layer of protection. Congratulations! You’re already much more protected from damaging hacks. Now, let’s keep it that way. Remember the old adage, “if it looks too good to be true”? Still applies! The hackers realized they can’t break in to your accounts, so they need you to open the door for them, or let them just peek in from time to time. They’re going to go about that in two ways: Phishing and malware.

  • Without blasting some old Phish tunes, phishing is when you receive a message or visit a site that looks like it’s trustworthy, yet is not. I’ve never found a legitimate company that sends out e-mails asking their users to enter their password “or else”. A bank will never request your password, nor will your social media services. If it seems suspicious, go to the site by typing the address yourself and check for announcements.
  • Malware is the online equivalent of tapping the phone line. If you keep your computer updated with the latest security releases for every program, this is a lesser concern. However, if you are tempted by that free download of The Avengers or Windows 10, be aware those treats might have some creatures hiding inside. The last round of malware that affected Mac users was isolated to a pirated copy of a popular software program. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The most common hacks happen when online baddies gain access to a list of usernames and passwords from some compromised site. Then, they just use those same credentials all over the internet. Do you have any e-mail/password combinations that would work in more than one place?

We are past the age when anti-virus software (Windows) was all you needed to be safe on your computer. As we keep more of our personal and professional lives online, it becomes more valuable to try and gain access to it. Stay ahead of those fiends with these strategies. I will post on occasion about other security steps you can take. Oh, and if you’re using an iPhone 5S or later, use Touch ID!