Hacked for the Holidays

Over the weekend, the U.S. revealed portions of the federal government suffered a cyber-attack, most likely perpetrated by a state-backed Russian organization. This attack has so far affected the Treasury, Commerce Department, portions of the Department of Defense, and the Centers for Disease Control. While authorities are still assessing the damage, reports have stated that no known classified information has yet been compromised. This attack reportedly also targeted large private companies that manage our nation’s industrial control systems. While this attack appears to have the backing of a country, you as an individual consumer are no less invulnerable to breaches by individual hackers.

How can you keep yourself safe online during this holiday season and throughout the year?

I stated in a 2016 op-ed that technological advances will always outpace security measures. This remains true today, making it even more important that consumers understand risks and be proactive in securing their information and online transactions.

Practice Good Cyber Hygiene

First, ensure you are practicing good cyber hygiene. Use only strong and long passwords and change them frequently. In addition, do not use the same password for multiple accounts. I understand the frustration of trying to create new passwords and remember them all; to avoid this headache you can use a password manager. Keep your computer “healthy” by installing updates. Product-makers and services issue software updates to fix bugs and cyber vulnerabilities. One of the biggest opportunities for a hacker is to exploit unpatched software vulnerabilities. Another way to limit fraudulent transactions is to enable two-factor authentication. This method requires you to confirm your identity in two different ways with devices or information only you should be able to access. These measures together will ensure strong cyber hygiene to protect against the most common hacking methods.

Be Safe Online

Online you can protect yourself by shopping only on secure sites. The best way to determine if a site is secure is to make sure its URL begins with HTTPS rather than just HTTP. In addition, your browser may indicate information on a site is encrypted by displaying a lock icon. Another common trick is to make a site look legitimate by changing one letter or character in the website address. To avoid accessing a fraudulent site you can type in website addresses yourself rather than clicking on a link or search result. You should also consider not letting sites store your information for future purchases. Many consumers breeze through this question during checkout, but if that site is hacked your information is now compromised as well. Last, do not shop online while connected to public Wi-Fi. Without password protection, it takes minimal effort for an amateur hacker to see the actions of everyone on the public network. 

Bank on Credit Cards

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), using a credit card while online shopping is the way to secure your bank accounts. There are laws in place that limit your liability for fraudulent credit card charges; however, these same protections do not apply to debit cards that draw directly from bank accounts. If your debit card is compromised during an online transaction, it is very difficult to recover any stolen funds. It is also a good idea to constantly monitor accounts and cards during the holiday season when online shopping reaches its peak for the year. Even if you may not have purchased a  holiday gift online from a specific retailer, if they have your information stored from a previous transaction and suffer a breach, your information may be stolen. Often, these incidents are only revealed to consumers when mysterious charges appear on accounts.

Holiday Health

Throughout this pandemic, online shopping has increase exponentially. Traditional brick and mortar stores have created websites and opened online shops to encourage continued business. Online shopping also keeps us safe because it allows for social distancing while we await widespread administration of the Coronavirus vaccine. Following some basic cyber hygiene practices and taking steps to stay secure online will ensure we all maintain our physical and financial health during this holiday season.