Throughout the flood of hacks and data breaches at retailers, restaurants, health care providers and online companies this year — Home Depot, Target, Subway, Adobe and eBay were just a handful — the one safe haven was the banks. Unlike other companies, banks had a long history of keeping bad guys away from our money and personal data.
Unfortunately, that's no longer something we can take for granted, as JPMorgan Chase customers discovered recently when the financial giant admitted that hackers had stolen information, including checking and savings account details, from 80 million customers. Even worse, the hack went on for two months before the company noticed anything was amiss. That's not very comforting.
There's no way you can prevent a data breach from occurring at a company that has your business. You can, however, make sure your accounts are secure from other forms of attack.
Here are my Top 5 methods to maintain safe and secure online accounts.
1. Lock down your password
Maintaining good password security is one of the easiest ways to protect your accounts.
A strong password — eight or more characters with upper-case characters, lower-case characters, numbers and symbols in a random order — is very hard for hackers to break. Click here to learn how to create a password like this that's still easy to remember.
Of course, you need to create a unique password for every account. That way, if hackers get one of your passwords in a data breach, they can't immediately get into your other accounts.
While you're making your passwords strong, don't forget to beef up your security questions, too. A strong password is worthless if a hacker can answer your security question after a quick trip to Facebook.
2. Secure your connection
When logging into a sensitive account, the best place to do it is at home. I'm assuming here that you've followed my other security tips about securing your network and making sure your computer doesn't have a data-stealing virus.
Of course, in an emergency, you might need to connect to a sensitive account when you’re on the go. For banking, it’s best to use your bank's app and a cellular connection.
If you have to use Wi-Fi, add extra security with a Virtual Private Network. This creates a secure, encrypted link with a third-party server, and you access your sites through that link. It's an extra level of protection that hackers shouldn't be able to crack. On a laptop, CyberGhost is a good option. On a tablet or smartphone, check out Hotspot Shield VPN or avast! SecureLine VPN.
Know that VPNs slow down your Internet speed. Turn them off for streaming videos and general browsing.
3. Set up account alerts
Many banks will automatically send you text alerts when purchases or withdrawals on your card exceed an amount that you specify. Click here to learn more about setting up text alerts. Check your credit cards and other accounts for similar options.
Many online accounts also offer something called two-step verification, or two-factor authentication. This is great. In order to log in from an unfamiliar device or location, you need a password and a code from a separate email account or smartphone text.
Click here for instructions on setting up two-step verification for Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other online accounts. It takes just a few minutes and can save you a bunch of time and hassles.
While we’re on the subject of two-factor authentication, some banks now feature an embedded chip that generates a new pass code for every use. Ask your financial institution if it offers cards with Chip Authentication Program (CAP) or Dynamic Passcode Authentication (DPA) technology. They don't advertise this. You have to know to ask.
4. Avoid phishing scams
Even if hackers don’t get your credit card information or account number, they usually get the next best thing: Your name and email address.
That's exactly what they need to launch a phishing attack. A popular type of phishing attack is a fake email claiming to be from a real company that asks you to click on a link or download an attachment.
Thanks to data breaches, hackers know exactly what companies you use. You might get an email claiming to be from JPMorgan Chase telling you that your account has a problem and you need to click a link or download a file for more details. Click here to learn the warning signs of a phishing email so you aren't fooled.
Of course, the link will take you to a malicious site disguised as a Chase page, or the email attachment will contain a data-stealing virus. Either way, hackers can get your username and password, or other sensitive information.
Remember, no legitimate company will ask you to click a link or download an email attachment to update your account details.
5. Be vigilant
The best way to make sure your online banking account, or any other account, stays safe is to pay attention. Catching small problems early can prevent hackers from making bigger ones later. Here's why:
In the cybercriminal world there's a term, "fullz." A fullz is all the information a thief needs to assume the identity of someone else and apply for credit under their name.
When hackers get your fullz, they often group it with fullz from other people and sell the whole package online. Click here to learn more about fullz and how they're bought and sold.
After buying a fullz, a criminal will test the waters. He’ll place a few small-scale purchases using your account details. If you don't take any action, he’ll continue making small purchases until he’s earned the amount he paid for your "fullz," and then some.
Finally, the criminal will max out your card or drain your account without a second thought. How do you stop this? Watch your accounts. If you notice a strange transaction, call your bank or credit card company immediately. Better to err on the side of caution.