Words by Matt Polen

You’ve seen it a million times: One of your Facebook friends – someone you haven’t talked to in an awkwardly long time – is suddenly posting some irrelevant comment on your feed about how much weight he lost on his new açaí berry diet. This same post is on a random smattering of newsfeeds on your friend list as well. It’s hilarious, albeit slightly annoying, but it’s something that can potentially have serious ramifications. That person whose account was hacked might be using the same username and password for one of their email accounts, which might contain information about other online accounts, or even financial details. Pretty soon, they are losing a whole lot more than 30 pounds in a week.

The Nature of Cyber Crime

Creating a Strong Password

While it might be convenient to use your dog’s name as a password for all of your online accounts, it’s not exactly the safest thing to do. Creating a strong password is important. Microsoft’s security and safety page has a helpful guide to creating a strong password that includes tips like:

  • Make passwords with multiple words
  • Upper and lower case letters
  • Intentional misspellings
  • Numbers or symbols

Using full words or worse yet, using personal information in a password (like your name or birthday) is a huge red flag and should be avoided. Trying to come up with different passwords for every online account can be a little overwhelming, but there are many password management programs available online, some of which are free.

Another good strategy is to have a constant rotation of a small handful of passwords with tiny variations, like a different number or symbol.

The Internet is the closest thing our generation has analogous to the Western Frontier of the previous century. Change happens so rapidly that security and legislation have a hard time regulating the online world. If you’re not careful, or you’re just plain unlucky, you might find yourself scrambling to secure your online identity, or worse, your bank account. When we post things we shouldn’t, don’t use good passwords (or worse, use that one good password for everything), click suspicious links and download suspicious files, we put ourselves at risk of cybercrime. Fortunately, maintaining a secure digital presence is simply an exercise in common sense.

What Not to Post Online

We all post things online against our better judgment. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re not comfortable with your parents seeing it, then you probably shouldn’t post it. That usually only applies to pictures or opinions, and hopefully your mother isn’t going to try to steal your identity with the intentions of committing credit card fraud.

Regardless, there are some things it’s just not safe to post online. These include your birth date, phone number, address, work place, etc. Not only are these items potentially useful to identity thieves, certain other things (like workplace, address, class schedule, etc.) can leave you open to stalking and harassment. As far as the more sensitive information goes, it’s safe to say that unless you’re on a secure government or banking website, providing your social security number is something you should never do.

Maintaining Your Online Privacy

It seems like Facebook changes its privacy settings every other week. It can be daunting to sort through the various menu pages, but having the right privacy settings tweaked can give you security and peace of mind. For example, you can block a person entirely, control which groups of friends are able to view your posts, and you can even block application invites from certain friends (useful for when that person from your 10th grade English class won’t stop sending you invites to their cyborg vampire aquarium). You can even control whether or not people are able to search for your profile from public search engines. And keeping tight control of who can tag you in what is never a bad idea.

One of the main ways social media accounts get hacked is by not keeping a close eye on whose friend requests you accept. That girl you don’t know might be cute, but chances are if she only has two other friends and she lives in another hemisphere, she’s not real.

Accepting strange friend requests and installing suspicious applications are two surefire ways to have your digital identity compromised. It’s also important to check in on your older online accounts that you may not have checked in a while. If you haven’t deactivated your MySpace account or checked your old Hotmail account in the last decade, there’s no way of knowing if it’s been hacked or not.

Dealing with Being the Victim of a Cyber Crime

Should you find yourself a victim of identity theft, there are a number of steps you can take. The matter of a stolen credit card, depending on the nature of the theft, can usually be resolved by calling your bank, canceling the card, and disputing the charges. But depending on what the exact charges are and what they amount to, you might find yourself with a damaged credit score. This can have a dramatic impact on the rest of your life (e.g. trying to buy a house or a car) and the best (and only) way to deal with it is by contacting the police. Investigations like this typically take a long time to resolve, so it’s in your best interest to be vigilant in protecting yourself online.

In the event that your Facebook or Twitter account is hacked, it’s always best to have additional measures in place to regain control over your account. Set up your account preferences so that you can link multiple email accounts, or even your cell phone, to your social networking account. That way, you’ll have multiple avenues through which you can deny anyone attempting to hijack your account. Do this now, and you won’t find yourself having to post a status apologizing to your friends for all the spam posts your account has been responsible for.