Exercise Personal Data Security: Tips to Protect Yourself both Online and Off

Tell me if this ever happened to you. You are online searching for someone’s name because you want to make a professional connection and end up finding their home address and phone number on a somewhat suspicious website. Now, imagine if that is your information up there. It seems that people’s personal information gets compromised all the time nowadays: some are breached in hacks directed at payment systems of big companies; some are sold by once reputable websites; and some are just out there for god-knows-what reasons.

As data privacy becomes a pressing concern, new regulations such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are being announced and implemented. However, most of such regulations are about what businesses should do to avoid violating people’s privacy and protect the sensitive information they collect for legitimate purposes. Unfortunately, regulations can only regulate those who intend to comply. So what can we, as individuals, do to better protect ourselves against all the malevolence out there? Not being an IT or data security expert, I did my research and handpicked some commonly mentioned areas to which we should pay more attention. I’d like to share them with you so we can make it a little bit more difficult for the bad guys to invade our privacy.

Secure Your Personal Information Offline

Let’s start from the good old threats to the security of our personal information, and try to follow these tips to fight against them:

  • Keep your financial, medical, or any documents with your personal information on them locked in a safe place at home. When you go out, don’t carry your whole life story with you — you don’t need your Social Security card, passport, or Medicare card all the time. When you do need them, make copies and consider keeping your IDs and debit/credit cards separately so if something happens you have a smaller chance of losing them all.
  • Shred receipts, letters, insurance forms, checks, bank statements, and any other documents with your personal information when you no longer need them. Personally, I shop online quite often so there are quite a few bags and boxes I need to get rid of, and I always tear off the mailing labels or scratch out my information from them before disposing of them.
  • Ask questions before providing your personal information, especially your social security number (SSN), to anyone: Why do you need this information? How will it be used? How will you keep it safe? What is the consequence of not sharing it? Be cautious and only share when you have to.
  • Review your bank statements regularly and look for any unusual activity. Insert your payment cards rather than swipe them whenever possible. Sign up for a credit monitoring service, which is often complimentary, and consider opting out of pre-screened credit and insurance offers by mail by calling 1-888-567-8688 or visiting optoutprescreen.com — both operated by the three nationwide credit reporting companies.

Secure Your Personal Information Online

Nothing can make our lives so much easier and more difficult at the same time as the internet does. While the internet presents unlimited information at your fingertips, it also means that your personal information can be accessed by some “uninvited guests”. Not everyone is an IT expert but there are some basics that we can learn to better protect ourselves.

  • Use strong and unpredictable passwords for your accounts. One suggested way is to think of a special phrase or sentence, take the first letter of each word and maybe switch some of them to numbers. It is also important to use different passwords for different accounts so you won’t end up having all your accounts compromised. Please, please do not write down your passwords on a sticky note and stick it on your monitor — you might as well post it on the internet and share with the whole world. I know it can be challenging to keep track of all the different passwords for the dozens of accounts you have. Why not try to develop a system of generating passwords for different types of accounts? Maybe jot down clues to your passwords that won’t make sense to anyone else? You do not necessarily have to change your passwords very often, but make sure they are hard to crack. Plus, use two-factor authentication whenever possible.
  • Be very cautious about phishing emails. Do not open emails from unrecognized senders and definitely do not download the attachments or click on links. Double-check the URLs, for some of them can look very much like some legitimate websites/companies.
  • Avoid using public WiFi, especially when you need to enter sensitive information such as your credit card numbers. If you handle highly confidential data, consider bringing your own secured WiFi when you travel.
  • Turn off, or at least log off, your devices when you are not using them or when you are not around. Turn off the Bluetooth immediately when you finish using it. If you are getting rid of your devices, make sure to wipe out all personal information first.
  • DO NOT OVERSHARE ON SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES. (YES, I AM YELLING.) I understand that some people want to keep others updated about what is going on with their lives, but do not write your autobiography here. Identity thieves can take advantage of this information and get access to your personal information and money. At the very least, check your privacy settings and make sure your posts are not visible to people you do not know or trust.

The list can definitely go on and on, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. If interested, you can check out some useful readings listed at the end of this article. The ever-evolving technology is wonderful, but people are not always. There is no one perfect solution to helping you dodge all the bullets — I mean, who would know that fingerprints can be stolen from a high-quality photo now? However, we should never stop trying, as “a little paranoia goes a long way”[1].

Further readings:

Sunny Wang is a graduate assistant at the HFTP Americas Research Center and recently earned her master’s degree in hospitality management at the University of Houston. Wang has accepted a consulting position with DPC Hospitality. She was the vice president of the HFTP Polytechnic University student chapter. Wang is also the first recipient of the John Cahill Hospitality Technology Research Assistantship established by HFTP at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston.

[1] https://www.computerworld.com/article/3165397/security/5-shocking-new-trends-threaten-your-personal-data.html

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About the Author: Sunny Wang