Do you have an online footprint? With the amount of personal and financial information stored in cyberspace, there are traces of just about everyone on the internet. With so much data available, consumers are vulnerable to cyberattacks.

This includes everything from scams and identity theft to malware attacks and even cyberstalking. That’s why it’s so important for consumers to incorporate cybersecurity into their online habits.

hands on a laptop

Ironclad passwords

No password is perfect, but creating a strong password offers protection from unauthorized access to your accounts and plays an important role in keeping bad actors away from your personal and financial information.

While it may be tempting to use passwords that are easy to remember, strong passwords offer far greater security. Instead, use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, symbols and numbers. Be sure not to use information that can be easily found on your social media accounts, such as your name, birthdate, location or other details about you that can be discovered by anyone with internet access.

Strong passwords are long, too, as more characters make them harder to crack. You can also use something called a random password generator to create your password. If you choose this route, be sure to do your research to find a reputable service.

Experts advise creating a unique password for each account. This can make it challenging to remember login credentials, so some people use password management tools to keep track of this information for them. These tools securely store passwords, and they can also generate them, which can make it easier for consumers to comply with password best practices.

Layering security with two-factor authentication

Once you have strong passwords, you can make them even harder to bypass by enabling two-factor or multifactor authentication, which is referenced as 2FA or MFA. This is an additional layer of protection that requires a user to provide additional forms of identification when logging in to an account. In addition to the password, users will be required to enter a code that was emailed or texted to their mobile device to verify that they are who they claim to be.

The benefit of using 2FA or MFA is that it lowers the risk of bad actors getting into one of your accounts. If they do crack your password, they are far less likely to be able to access an account protected by 2FA or MFA because they won’t have the additional code being sent to your email address or phone.

Many online platforms, such as banking, social media and health care websites, as well as email providers, offer 2FA or MFA. Go to your account settings and search the security section for 2FA or MFA. After you enable it, you will need to enter the 2FA or MFA code every time you log in.

Be wary of Wi-Fi

You may be tempted to hop onto the public Wi-Fi network when you’re on the go. While this may be convenient in the moment, it puts consumers at risk and makes them vulnerable to cybercriminals.

That’s because public Wi-Fi networks are typically unsecured because they need to be accessible to everyone. Bad actors take advantage of this amenity to steal personal and financial information from unsuspecting consumers by either creating fake Wi-Fi hot spots or hacking into the network.

There are ways to use public Wi-Fi safely, though. First, don’t just connect to a network at random. Make sure you are accessing trusted Wi-Fi when you’re out, such as those provided by businesses that you’re visiting. Layer on the protection by using a virtual provider network (VPN) to safeguard your online privacy. Even if you’ve done both of these things, it’s best not to log in to any sensitive accounts while you are using public Wi-Fi, such as your credit card or bank.

If you’d rather avoid the risk of public Wi-Fi altogether, you can use a mobile hot spot or create your own secure Wi-Fi network through your mobile carrier. You can also use a wired internet connection when it’s available, such as when you are visiting a business, hotel or conference facility.

Stay up to date

One of the best ways to stay safe online is easy: Keep your software updated. This includes the operating system and apps on both your computer and your mobile phone, as well as any other devices you may use.

This is important because these updates include security patches that are released continually to address new cyberthreats as they emerge. By keeping current with your updates, you’re staying one step ahead of bad actors who use software vulnerabilities to steal data and cause harm. Software updates also include bug fixes that can improve the way applications work and help provide the best user experience possible.

You can update your apps automatically or manually. Simply adjust the settings on your devices to your preference. Whichever method you choose, keep a close eye on any pending updates, because some do require manual steps to complete them properly. The inconvenience of doing so far outweighs the risk of leaving yourself open to a cyberattack.

Don't take the bait

Phishing attempts are a common way that cybercriminals try to gain access to personal data. Phishing is a type of cyberattack in which an attacker poses as a legitimate entity or organization to trick users into giving away sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers or other personal data. These attacks typically occur via email, but can also happen through other communication channels such as text messages, social media posts or phone calls.

When you know what to look for, phishing attempts are easy to spot. At first glance, they may appear to be from a legitimate sender, but when you take a closer look, there are several signs that the communication is fake. First, the email address won’t exactly match who the sender is supposed to be, even if it is close. For example, there may be extra characters in the domain name.

The tone of the email will probably have a sense of urgency, too, to prompt the recipient to act quickly before they figure out the email is fake. The email will also contain a link or an attachment for the user to open. In phishing emails, these contain malware or ransomware that can infect your computer or network and steal your information.

If you suspect an email is a phishing scam, do not open any attachments or click on any links. Then, delete the email, both from your inbox and from your trash so you don’t accidentally click on it later. If the phishing email claims to be from your bank or other legitimate institution, you can report it to their customer support team for investigation, which may help prevent others from being impacted by the scam.

After that, it is a good idea to monitor your accounts for suspicious activity. While you’re at it, change your passwords, too, in case your credentials were stolen.

You can help deter cybercriminals by taking these easy steps to protect yourself online. By remaining vigilant, you can defend yourself against identity theft, financial loss and other harmful impacts of cyberattacks.