Anyone with a computer has probably been a victim of a phishing attempt, where hackers pose as a trustworthy entity and try to get your username, password, credit card details, and other sensitive information that your mom told you never to give to anyone.
But mom's advice isn't enough. The U.S government may be able to afford $14 billion for cyber security to protect its networks from hackers, but the rest of us can't. Here are some free and inexpensive ways to keep safe online.
1. Passwords That Go Beyond Your Dog's Name
Strong, unique passwords are a must-have for each site you visit, but especially for those storing sensitive personal information.
Using your dog's name and the year you graduated from high school as a password isn't terribly secure. The website 1Password creates and stores strong passwords for you, so that you don't have to remember for each website you visit. You just need to remember the main password to enter 1Password; just don't make it a simple one your dog could remember.
2. Different Email Addresses
Use a different email address for site registration and recovery than you use for everyday email. If your regular email address is compromised, an attacker can't also reset all of your sensitive passwords.
Whatever email system you do use, pick one with a robust spam filter to avoid phishing attacks. I'm a fan of Gmail.
3. Two-Step Verification
Set up two-step verification for Gmail and Apple to protect your accounts with your password and your phone. The Google verification requires entering a password as you normally would when signing in. Then, a code is sent to your phone via text, voice call, or through Google's mobile app. Or, a security key can be inserted into your computer's USB port.
Once signed in, you can choose not to use two-step verification again on that computer — only your password. If someone tries to sign into your account from another computer, two-step verification will be required.
4. Buy an Online Security Program
An all-in-one online security program such as Norton Security with backupprovides virus detection, password storage, file backup, parental controls, and firewall protection. Buying programs for those features individually is expensive, and free options may not provide the same level of threat protection.
The parental controls are especially strong. According to a study by AV-Comparatives, the premium edition of Norton scored ahead of all other antivirus programs for overall parental controls and blocked 99% of all pornography.
5. Monitor Your Credit for Free
You can pay a credit monitoring service to alert you to any significant changes or suspicious activity on your credit report and credit cards, but you can do the same thing yourself for free.
Your bank or credit card provider may already offer fraud alerts and other protections for free. For example, you can choose to be notified via email or text message if your credit card is used to withdraw cash or a transaction happens outside the U.S.
Logging into your account every day and checking your account activity is another free way to monitor your credit, though that can be a lot of work.
One of the best ways to protect your credit is to get a free credit report each year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Consumers are entitled to a free report yearly from each of the three main credit reporting agencies. Request one report every four months to cover an entire year. If you find any errors, report them to the credit bureau you got the report from immediately.
6. Talk to Your Kids
Lastly, talk to your children about the importance of staying safe online. I check out websites my daughter wants to visit before allowing her online, but it's easy to run into dangerous sites without knowing you're doing it.
Safekids.com offers advice on online safety, including how to avoid cyberbullying, parental guides for Facebook and Instagram, and recognizing when a sexual predator is manipulating children.