Internet users spend the equivalent of nearly 4 million years online every month, including 32 hours per person here in the US alone according to Web technology provider Go Gulf. As online privacy advocates caution, that's a lot of time to be in front of your smartphone, tablet or PC - including many prime opportunities for criminals specializing in identity theft to potentially swipe personal information.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it's actually the number one consumer complaint, with Javelin Research estimating identity fraud costs to Americans at $18 billion alone in 2011. Luckily a few simple steps can help keep you from becoming a victim. Below, you'll find several expert hints, tips and pieces of advice for better safeguarding your data.
Setup Privacy Controls - When using popular programs, devices, operating systems and services (e.g. social networks), don't assume privacy settings are optimally preconfigured. Always setup security and privacy controls before connecting to the Internet or utilizing them.
Create Safe Passwords - Safe passwords should be a minimum of eight characters, contain a mix of letters, numbers and symbols, and not be based on real-world dictionary terms or dates of significance, e.g. birthdays and anniversaries. For added safety, don't use the same password multiple times.
Disable Location Services - From apps which allow you to check in when visiting restaurants and bars to services which "geotag" photos with location data, turn off GPS tracking unless you have a pressing use for it. Whenever possible, avoid giving others information that can help them pinpoint your hometown or current locale.
Never Share Personal Information - Personal data such as birthdays, addresses, places or work and cities lived in should never be shared online in public forums, and carefully guarded otherwise. If allowed, opt out of filling up registration or entry forms which request this data, or provide alternate information.
Confirm Before You Click - Don't click on links contained in unsolicited emails, which can potentially expose you to viruses or similar high-tech threats. Instead, reach out to senders to confirm contents first - and that they indeed were responsible for sending the message.
Setup Anonymous Accounts - Giving out your personal email address can be an invitation to receive spam, phishing and fraudulent offers. Use free services such as Gmail to create alternative accounts for use when registering with third parties, or signing up to claim offers.
Use Prepaid Cards - Numerous companies such as American Express, Mastercard, Discover and VISA offered prepaid payment solutions. Consider using them when making online purchases to prevent yourself from needlessly giving out your credit card number.
Reach Out and Touch Someone - If someone phones you purporting to be from your bank, insurance provider or a government agency seeking personal data, end the call as quickly as possible and don't give them any information. Afterwards, dial a direct contact, or visit the company's official website to find its publicly-listed number, in order to verify legitimacy. Never call back a number provided by the original caller.
Be Cautious with Public WiFi - Public wireless hotspots such as those found at hotels and Starbucks coffee shops can come in handy - but information shared can also unknowingly be made visible to third parties. Don't share personal or sensitive data, or login to sites and services which require its entry, when using these networks.
Remain Suspicious - When it comes to the Internet and online security, train yourself to play defense - stay paranoid, and create a mental checklist of prerequisites that must be met before trust is given. Practice these habits, and they'll soon become second nature: While you shouldn't be afraid to go about daily routines, a healthy dose of suspicion pays.