There are now more than 1.2 billion websites worldwide, giving consumers access to a near-endless supply of products, services and data on-demand. Despite benefits in speed and scale, however, there’s a potential drawback while computing online: stolen data.

Recent research shows 81% of users are willing to share more personal data with banks if it means faster loan approvals, while 57% said they would provide retailers more data in exchange for personalized deals or savings. But what happens if this data is compromised? Armed with personal information, attackers could steal your identity, open new credit accounts and even commit tax fraud.

As a result, it’s critical to implement online safety measures to reduce immediate risk and develop safe computing habits to protect your personal data.

Why is online safety important?

Cybersecurity forms the core of online safety. While the term is often associated with business IT teams and the protection of corporate networks, cybersecurity thinking is critical for all users to secure their data at scale.

Put simply, cybersecurity focuses on reducing risk by applying tools and techniques to limit the chance of data being compromised, attacks getting through undetected or information being stolen. With this personal information, hackers can use your credit card to make fraudulent purchases, open up loans in your name or even steal your identity. Some scams also involve taking private photos or reading personal emails and using the information to blackmail you into paying a ransom.

For companies, this means developing cybersecurity policies and procedures across their organization. For individuals, it means developing safe computing habits to help prevent personal information from being compromised, stolen or destroyed.

This isn’t a theoretical exercise — last year, more than 540 million users were put at risk when Facebook was breached and millions of guests had their personal data exposed in the first few months of 2020 after Marriott was hacked. While personal cybersecurity habits can’t prevent these large-scale breaches, taking preventative measures can help limit the risk by giving users more control over what they share, when they share it and how they interact with the Internet at large.

Online safety measures to take

Building strong security habits is the key to staying safe online. While one-off measures such as deleting a problematic account or changing your password are helpful, those measures can create a false sense of security if not paired with more consistent, online safety habits.

Here are eight ways to reduce your risk online:

  1. Reduce what you share — The more you share, the greater your risk. While banks and credit card companies need your personal and financial information to process loans or credit applications, the same can’t be said of social media or e-commerce companies. For example, many online retailers include an option to “save” your credit card details for future purchases, which you should avoid. If the site is compromised, your card data could be stolen and used to make fraudulent purchases. Reducing your risk of fraud is worth the inconvenience of re-entering your credit card each time you make a purchase.
  2. Increase your privacy settings — Social media is now a part of everyday online life but it also lends itself to data over-sharing. Pictures, posts and personal information can all become public knowledge if you’re not careful. Curb the risk by regularly checking your privacy settings. Wherever possible, limit who can see your information by default and turn on notifications requiring you to approve new posts or pictures containing your image or personal data.
  3. Monitor your emails — Email is everywhere. From corporate communications to purchase confirmations to collaborations with friends and family, email is often the easiest way to connect, which makes it an ideal opportunity for attackers. If they can convince you to follow malicious links or download infected attachments, your data could be compromised. The technique is called phishing — attackers send a legitimate-looking email and hope you’ll take the bait — and it remains one of the most popular online threats. Reduce your risk by learning what to look out for. Any email you’re not expecting that contains words like “URGENT” or “WARNING” or seems to come from a well-known company but contains a host of spelling errors is likely a phish. Just delete it.
  4. Secure all connections — Make it harder for hackers to see what you’re doing online with a virtual private network (VPN). These tools mask your IP address and location and encrypt your data in transit to frustrate fraudsters.
  5. Select strong passwords — If attackers can guess your password, they can compromise your online accounts. Steer clear of choices like “password” or “123456” and instead opt for longer passwords (12 characters or more) featuring random letters, numbers and symbols.
  6. Use antivirus programs — Install antivirus and antimalware programs on your computer or mobile device to scan files and emails for potentially malicious code. Every attack detected is one you can avoid.
  7. Patch everything — Make sure to regularly check for any updates to your device operating system (OS) and all applications you’re using. While some updates simply contain new features and quality-of-life improvements, others offer fixes for existing or newly-discovered security flaws hackers are actively exploiting. Regular patching reduces your risk.
  8. Opt for identity protection — Last but not least? Consider identity theft protection services that actively monitor for fraud across credit cards, court records, investment accounts and Social Security data. In addition to ongoing protection, many offer monetary ID theft guarantees to help you get back on track if your data is compromised.

Conclusion

Online safety matters. Companies want more of your data to offer personalized discounts and quicker loan processing but hackers are happy to steal this information and rack up fraudulent charges or assume your identity. By developing safe computing habits focusing on reducing the data you share, controlling the data you provide and protecting your data from compromise, you can reduce your online risk and gain peace of mind.