Americans spend an average of 11 hours per day using digital media. A recent Nielsen report reveals that we’re on our smartphones to pay bills or listen to music or on our laptops accessing websites for a good chunk of our daily lives. From our Facebook accounts to our entertainment services and online bank accounts, our personal information and private photos are stored in databases and cloud services that are capable of being breached and exposed to the public by criminals.
Just ask the more than 11.5 million Americans whose identities are stolen every year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average financial loss for identity theft victims is $4,930. Many of us don’t have that much sitting around in our checking accounts, but an identity thief can acquire credit or even get hired for a job with your name and social security number, creating credit problems for you that can take months to unravel.
Nick Sullivan, a security engineer at CloudFlare, explained that most companies tend to be secure in how they store our information, despite what the handful of recent data breaches may suggest. “It’s not that companies aren’t doing what they need to do to keep our information secure,” he says. “But our lives are online and every transaction is electronic one way or another. And determined hackers will be able to find and exploit security flaws that could be easy to miss for a company.”
Front-end web design includes all of the code and software validation that makes a website look and function a certain way, while back-end development includes the databases where company and client information is stored and encrypted. Many companies, Sullivan says, also follow a strict standard when handling financial information through PCI security standard compliance, which works toward ethical business practices and customer protection.
Figuring out our passwords, though, is the easiest way that criminals exploit our identities. The password system that we use provides a layer of protection when we access our accounts, but often, people choose passwords that are easy to guess and security questions with answers that can be found through searching their social media sites.
“Strong passwords are important,” says Sullivan. “By using different passwords for every account and making sure that the passwords are complex with a combination of upper and lower case letters or special characters, it makes it harder for a criminal to gain access to your accounts. The same is true for your security questions. Can your answers be found elsewhere online?”
So what can you do in a world where the theft of your private information seems inevitable? According to Sullivan, you can use services like CloudFlare to add an extra shield against potential attackers to your own websites, and just be diligent and aware of what is going on around you. “Shop from online retailers that you trust,” Sullivan says. “And make sure that your security questions are tough to guess.”
You should also change your passwords every few months and keep watch on your credit report, either by using a credit monitoring service or requesting your free credit report from the three bureaus every four months. Until the way we store and index information is changed, our best defense against identity theft is to protect ourselves as much as we can and take action against a stolen identity as soon as possible.