National Cyber Security Awareness MonthOctober is in full swing, which means Breast Cancer Awareness Month is upon us and Halloween is closing in. Something more frightful than the ghouls in the night is a cybersecurity threat. To shed some light on this pressing and timely topic, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security teamed up with public and private partners like the National Cyber Security Alliance to create National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which is now in its 13th year. Because cybersecurity is so important, throughout the month of October we’re dishing out ways you can keep your online identity safe. In this post we dig into why cybersecurity matters and detail some simple steps you can take to secure your online information.

Why does cybersecurity matter?

The Internet is a major part of our lives. From our smartphones and computers to our TVs, home appliances and cars, we are almost always connected. As such, it’s important for consumers to know how to stay safe online and on their devices. While it’s true your information can be revealed through a company’s data breach, a large part of cybersecurity is user habits, which is why it’s important to understand how you can protect yourself.

What can I do to protect myself online?

While there are a number of ways to protect your information online, these are some basic cybersecurity tips for all Internet users.

1. Create strong passwords and change them regularly. We’ve all heard it a million times — creating strong passwords is one of the best ways to protect your information online — but we often fail to remember that these passwords must be changed regularly (at least every six months) to remain secure. To help you remember when it’s time for a password change, mark your physical or digital calendar and set alerts. And remember that every password you create should be a unique one made up of at least eight characters (the longer, the better) and include a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. While you may be tempted to use personal information, like your child’s name, it’s best to steer clear of that because that information is relatively easy to find online, which can put your accounts at higher risk of being hacked. Cultural references are also not a good idea, as we learned from the list of 2015’s worst passwords. Having a hard time thinking of a new password? Try to connect two completely random words like foxtrotpizza, then change some letters to characters and add some extra characters to be safe. If you need some extra help remembering all of your unique passwords, you may want to consider a password manager, which can store all of your passwords in one secure, digital safe.

2. Use a trusted browser. An Internet browser is a user’s key to the web. As such, it’s especially important to make sure you’re choosing a trusted browser, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge and Safari, when you connect to the Internet. Safe and trusted browsers allow you to access the web securely by warning you of potentially harmful websites before you enter them, as a number of browsers have build-in malware protection. Similarly, they clearly let you know if you’re visiting a secure site, meaning the URL starts with HTTPS, by displaying a lock or green color at the beginning of the URL, which is essential to know before you log into your account or enter any of your personal information.

3. Don’t overshare. A large number of us live our lives on social media, sharing some of our special life moments with people we (hopefully) know in real life. Although sharing can be a fun activity, it can also be an exposing one. That’s why it’s important to know how to responsibly share online by setting strict privacy settings, turning off geolocation and knowing your social media friends in real life. After all, oversharing your information with a stranger can reveal not only information about your home or place of work, but also expose information about your personal life that can be used to unlock your security questions and even reveal your passwords if you opt to use something like your pet’s name, which we don’t recommend. When you’re deciding what to share online, ask yourself if this is information you’d share with someone you just met or someone you don’t know that well. If it’s not, you may want to considering texting or emailing the news to a couple of family members or friends instead of sharing with all of your online friends.

4. Know which sites have your information. It’s no secret that we’re accustomed to passing out our information online. From shopping and checking our credit card statements to posting photos and sending an email, most of us are fluent on how to do this online. And since so much of our lives is digital, we should be aware of who we give our personal information out to, especially since security breaches are more and more common these days. Tracking down all of the sites that have your information stored can be a challenge, so it’s best to start with the ones you know, then look into the ones that email you — if they have your email, you may have created an account with them in the past. If you haven’t used a service or website for over a year, you may want to disable or delete your account — if it’s not clear how you can do this, contact the site’s customer support team and they should be able to help you. Identity theft protection services may also help you keep tabs on where your information appears, as most of the top-rated services do regular scans of the Internet black market as well as monitor your information on public records and people search websites. As an added bonus, most of these services offer free trials that allow you to test out the service before you make a financial commitment, which can be a good way for you to locate where your information appears online, then cancel if you don’t see the value in the service.

5. Be skeptical of unfamiliar emails, texts and links. Scammers work year-round to try to steal the personal information or money of unsuspecting victims, which is why it’s important for you to always be on alert. Although scammers have used email-related methods in the past to spam consumers with scammy links designed to steal their identity, they have more recently been known to text their victims posing as a friend looking to share a funny video or news story, which is part of the reason why millennials are the most likely to fall for a scam. To prevent falling for a scam, you’ll want to be skeptical of any emails or texts you receive from unfamiliar senders. Never click on any links sent in these messages, and if you’re ever unsure of a link you receive from a number you do recognize, contact the person through email or call them to find out if they really sent you the link. If not, delete that text immediately and report it to the FTC. While there is usually some sort of ongoing email/text scam going on, consumers should also be aware of seasonal scams, like voting scams during the election and charity scams during the holidays. Follow our scams blog to learn more about the newest scams.

Want to see more of our National Cyber Security Awareness Month tips? Keep up with our identity theft protection blog throughout the rest of October to get more tips on protecting your online identity.