3 Ways to Avoid Identity Theft

Your personal online info could be leaking right into identity thieves' hands. Here's how to keep yourself secure.

protected personal information
Adam Voorhes for Reader’s Digest

Every year, millions of Americans see their personal information leak into the wrong hands. Maybe there’s spyware on their computer, or a service they use suffered a security breach—as eBay did this year, leaving customers at risk of exposure. Or perhaps their password is easy to guess: Security company SplashData reports that the most popular passwords in 2013 were 123456 and password.

Fear not: It’s a lot easier than you might think to set up proper defenses. In fact, you can easily do it all in a weekend. Here’s how.

Clean Your Computer And Smartphone
Before you put new security measures into place, make sure your devices are as spotless as possible. This means installing a good anti­virus program and taking the time to clear out any spy- or malware that may have already infected your system.

Go with AVG Free Antivirus (free.avg.com) or Avast! (avast.com)—each is free. Run a full system scan. This can take over an hour, so start it before settling into other plans. When you return to your computer, clear out anything that shouldn’t be there with a few simple steps (the program will guide you).

These days, it’s also worth it to make sure your phone is safe from viruses. iPhones are less likely to be targeted by malware, but Android users should download the Lookout app (lookout.com) to scan their devices and ensure everything is as it should be.

Secure Your Wi-Fi
Now that your computer is clean, you should plug any holes in your home network. It’s fairly easy for potential criminals to gain access to your information if they’re able to share your connection—that’s why you want to be careful when using public Wi-Fi.

For your home, the Federal Communications Commission recommends a few steps. Even if you put security measures into place a couple of years ago, it’s a good idea to refresh your settings. You may have to refer to the instructions for your wireless router or call tech support for help. Different routers will have different setup pages, so the actual step-by-step will vary, but the end result will be the same. Here’s what to do:

  • Enable basic password protection. That means setting up WPA2 encryption via your router, if possible, which will allow you to set a password of your choosing; make it good!
  • You also need to change the password that allows you to access your router’s settings to begin with. This will keep unsavory types out.
  • Then change the default name of your wireless network. Don’t use any personal information here. Something nondescript that you’ll recognize (even something random like “Bran_Muffin”) will work well.
  • Turn network-name broadcasting off to keep anyone from selecting your network from a drop-down menu.

Each of these steps takes some time, so sprinkle them throughout a day if you want: There’s no need to tackle everything at once. When you’re done, you’ll know that your wireless network is safe.

Dig Deep with Your Passwords
Everything you just accomplished could be for nothing if a thief has your existing passwords, so you need to change them for every service you use. Try it when you find yourself on those sites anyway.

What you’ve heard is true: Passwords should use a variety of special characters, numerals, letters, and cases when possible. They should be close to random, and there should be a different one for each website you use. Doing this, and keeping track of it all, is a pain—which is why people don’t do it and wind up with stolen identities.

Try Dashlane (dashlane.com), a password manager with powerful encryption that can securely keep track of the weirdest codes you can come up with. Best of all, it logs you into sites automatically, so there’s no need to worry about all those obscure keystrokes. Whew!

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest