Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks may have grabbed most of last year’s cyber security headlines, but in personal finance terms, we should have been far more concerned about data breaches at retailers like Target and Neiman-Marcus.  

Cybercrime breaks into three principal categories: malware, phishing, and social media mining.  Criminals often use a combination of these to steal from investors.  You can’t guarantee you won’t be the victim of cybercrime, just as you can’t guarantee your car won’t be stolen or your house won’t be burglarized.  Still, you can take concrete steps to protect yourself.

  • Install a robust firewall and antivirus program—and keep them updated.
  • Never click on a link in an email, even if you know and trust the sender.  Instead, open that web browser and go to the site on your own.  More and more, phishing emails look like the real thing.  Even if it’s your credit card company sending you the monthly email that your statement is ready, take the time to go to the website independently.  This is particularly important with an urgent-sounding request.  If you get an email that looks and smells like it’s from your credit card company, warning you of potential fraud and inviting you to click on a link, don’t.  Go to your bookmarked website and contact the company through known channels.  Better yet, pick up the phone and call the fraud department—the number is on the back of your card.
  • Whenever possible, do not use your email address as part of a log-on.  Your log-on and your password work together like a combination lock, and using your email gives away half the combination.
  • If a website offers a third level of security—sending a text to your cell phone, or a stand-alone encryption device, take advantage of it.  That third level makes your combination lock more robust.
  • Particularly across your financial accounts and your email, use different, robust passwords.  That way, if one account is compromised, the thief can’t simply re-use your password to gain access to all of them.  Change your passwords periodically, say every three months.
  • Consider using a password aggregator/generator.  There are several good ones, available either online or through anti-virus software.  Not only can one of these store all your passwords securely across all your devices, but it can generate and save those painfully long and complicated secure passwords you know you should be using.
  • Set up alerts on your financial accounts.  For example, you can have your credit card company email you whenever there is a charge above a certain dollar amount, an overseas charge, or a charge without the card being present.  This can help you nip cyber theft in the bud.
  • While you’re at it, check your accounts regularly, to be certain you recognize every transaction.  Often cybercrime and identify theft begin with small charges to an account, on the theory that the owner isn’t paying attention.  Don’t be that owner.  
  • Check your credit history regularly.  You can review yours annually, for free, at https://www.annualcreditreport.com.  (If you are reading this article on line, don’t click the link—type it into your browser window yourself!)  If a credit card has been used fraudulently, you can place a ninety day fraud alert on your credit files and receive new reports for free.  The fraud alert prevents anyone from accessing your credit files without your consent, reducing the likelihood that a criminal can open an account in your name.
  • Be certain your cell phone is password-secured, and opt for the complicated password, instead of the four-digit default.  Set the phone to time out and require a new log in after five or fifteen minutes of inactivity.  Keep the phone’s operating system updated as well.  
  • Almost all cell phones support some sort of remote locking/wiping application.  Be sure your phone has one and that you know how to use it.  Many of these applications can also help you find a misplaced phone.
  • Be wary of both apps and Wi-Fi hotspots, both of which can mask criminal activity that infiltrates your smartphone.  Read reviews of new apps before downloading, and verify the legitimacy of your hotspot. 

Note:  Claire E. Toth, JD, MLT, CFP™, is Vice President of Point View Wealth Management, Inc., a registered investment advisor at 382 Springfield Ave., Summit. The full-length version of this article is available at:  www.ptview.com.