How Hackable Are You?

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How easy is it for a potential hacker to steal your identity? Easier than you think.

WHEN WIRED NEWS reported Mat Honan had his digital life hacked and virtually wiped out in August, his significant data loss wasn’t the scariest part. More terrifying was how easy it was for the hackers to access his accounts, using publicly available information.

Description: The hackers to access the accounts, using publicly available information

The hackers to access the accounts, using publicly available information

If a hacker wanted to ruin your life, how easy would it be? Sadly, a lot easier than you may realize. You may not think you’re sharing too much data any one sites just a snippet here and there – but to a hacker, you’re building an easily harvested online profile. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to safeguard your security.

Protect yourself the easy way

If you use email, upload photos, frequent social networks, and shop on the Web, your online profile is likely already out there. Even if you don’t go online much, bits of your personal data may be available for viewing via digitized public records: Someone could readily find out if you have a mortgage, for example, or if you’ve recently gotten married or divorced.

Search for yourself: To discover just what information is out there, run a search on yourself. Type your name into a search engine with quotation marks and without and include keywords such as your address, phone number, email address, job title, company, and alma mater.

Try to see the resulting information the way a hacker would. Is there enough data for someone to piece together your life? If so, follow the steps below to strengthen your security.

Use passphrases instead of passwords: The best passwords are auto-generated mixes of letters, numbers, and special characters, but these can be hard to remember. However, as most passwords are hacked using brute force in which hackers use a computer to run through all possible combinations of characters long passwords are more secure since they take longer to crack. An Intel Core i7 processor takes just hours to crack a five-character password, but more than ten days to crack a seven-character one. Therefore, security experts advise using passphrases instead of passwords. See this month’s Privacy Watch for pointers on building a good passphrase.

Description: Use passphrases instead of passwords

Use passphrases instead of passwords

Stay up-to-date: Be sure you’re running the latest version of all your software – including your antivirus program.

Prioritize accounts: Create unique passwords only for accounts that contain sensitive information – say, email, online banking, and social networking accounts.

One security expert also suggests creating a “junk” email address you can use when signing up for message boards, contests, and newsletters. If one of these accounts is compromised, hackers won’t have your real email address or password.

Lie: Be careful about what information you give away to noncritical websites. If you can’t get past a screen because the website wants you to give up too much information, just make it up.

Protect yourself offline: According to one expert, offline identity theft is still much more common than the online variety. The reason? Mailboxes, dumpsters, and lost wallets don’t have passwords. Lock your mailbox, shred important documents before pitching them, and never carry your Social Security card.

Use a password manager

Password managers such as Dashlane, 1 Password, and LastPass store your passwords in an encrypted program that you unlock with a master password. They also auto0generate secure passwords and store form data, so you don’t have to store credit card data on the Web.

Bu sure to pick a manager that’s compatible with all of your devices. Dashlane, 1Password, and LastPass work with Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android; Last-Pass also works with Linux, Blackberry, Windows Phone, webOS, and Symbian,

Freeze your credit report

One expert says that freezing your credit report is the single most effective way to prevent identity theft. To do this, you must contact all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) and complete an application process. You’ll then receive a PIN or password that lets you “thaw” your report (temporarily or permanently) if you need to use it.

Description: Freeze your credit report

Freeze your credit report

Be tough to breach

Unless you’re a high-profile target, a hacker will likely give up if you’re too hard to breach. Mat Honan’s hackers admitted that their attack wasn’t personal they just thought his three character Twitter handle was cool.

Taking small security steps can make you just annoying enough that hackers won’t bother with you.

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