How secure is your personal information? Most people don’t tend to think about cyber security until they are the victim of a data breach. For one-third of those victims it goes far beyond having your private information sold or even receiving fraudulent charges on your credit cards. That’s because an estimated one in three people who experience a data breach will become an identity theft victim. Banks and credit card companies will easily reverse false credit card charges but clearing up the issues caused by identity theft can be difficult to say the least.

This problem continues to grow annually. According to a 2016 Identity Fraud Study, over $15 billion was stolen from 13.1 million U.S. consumers in 2015. This staggering number doesn’t even take into account the identity thieves who used their victim’s health insurance benefits, and even their social security number for various reasons.

Unlike property crimes, or other crimes of opportunity, hacking of computers and smart devices is a round-the-clock occurrence. Data thieves target small companies, large companies, and individuals alike. The practice has become so commonplace that learning institutions including Paradise Valley Community College are now offering classes in Cyber Security.

The scope of computer hacking can be illustrated by the frightening statistic that an estimated one million plus pieces of malicious software being published each day. According to research done by cyber security giant Symantec, thieves are working faster than companies can defend themselves, and launching more malicious attacks than ever before.

Even the cyber security industry’s top experts will tell you that if you are connected to the Internet it is virtually impossible to completely protect yourself from malicious activity. There are however, a number of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of becoming one of the millions of victims this year.

Passwords—Use different and randomly generated passwords for each and every Account that you log into. Avoid using names of children and pets as passwords. Birthdays and anniversaries should also be avoided. You may need to use a password manager such as 1password or LastPass to keep track of the passwords you end up generating.

Shop with a credit card—Credit card companies offer protection for fraudulent credit card charges, but not all debit cards offer as much protection. Plus, if your debit account is hacked, not only can a criminal drain your bank account, but it can take weeks for the bank to finish its investigation of the fraud and reimburse your account.

Check your statement—Don’t set that unopened statement in your pile of bills before opening it to check for bogus charges. Don’t just look for large charges, either. Hackers often “ping” an account with tiny charges to check the viability of the account. So if you see purchases of 1 dollar or less, that could be a sign your information has been compromised.

Back it up—Back up your computer, phone and tablet on the cloud. Try to remember to do this at least once a week. That way even if your devices are stolen or damaged you can retrieve your contacts, photos, files, etc.

Be weary of “official” looking alerts—Cyber criminals will often create convincing emails that appear to come from an official source. Never click links in emails or texts that seem to come from your bank, the IRS, or any other institution stating that your account was compromised or asking you to update info. If you think the message might be valid, log into your account directly, without using the supplied link.

Keep all applications up-to-date—When you receive an update notice from a software company or app provider be sure to install the latest patches. These companies are working to not only fix bugs, but also to increase security.

Watch what you share with APP providers—When using your smart device, pay special attention to what permissions each application (app) is requesting. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense for most apps to request access to your photos. Set reminders so that you remember to periodically check your permissions settings to make sure they are what you want them to be.

What to do if you are a victim of a data breach:

Contact card issuers—First, contact your bank and each credit card company where you have an account. They can help you to set up fraud alerts and/or freeze your accounts. Ask for new cards and set up new PINs.

Contact the feds—Get in touch with your local Social Security office to block electronic access to your Social Security records. This will prevent anyone, including you, from accessing or changing your personal information. If you block access to your record and then change your mind in the future, you can contact the Social Security office and ask them to unblock it

Set up account alerts—Most banks and credit card companies allow you to setup notifications of suspicious card usage or transactions that exceed a certain dollar amount. This may give you a heads-up that you’ve been compromised. If you want to take monitoring a step further, LifeLock and other similar threat detection services can monitor your card activities and alert you when suspicious activity occurs.

Stay vigilant—Stolen information is often sold on the black market to criminals who may hold onto it for months. Sometimes these crooks will wait until people have forgotten about it before they use that data.

Don’t let all of this information make you frightened or paranoid, just be vigilant. In today’s fast paced digital world, it’s easy to get distracted. In most cases Technology makes our life easier and actually keeps us safer. Use the tips you learned in this article to make you a little more aware and secure. Security starts with you!

If you are interested in more information on Cyber Security courses offered by Paradise Valley Community College, please contact Professor Sean Petty:

If you would like to be more active in your local community and are interested in starting or participating in a Neighborhood Block Watch, please contact the Desert Ridge Community Association office at 480-551-4553.