MetLife Defender Q&A: How to Stay Safe Online

The technology and cybersecurity team answers reader-submitted questions.

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David Pohl for Reader’s Digest

Q: A former employer’s database was hacked last spring, and I found out my identity was stolen when my income tax return was rejected. What can workers do to protect themselves?

—Pat D., Seattle, Washington

A: Last year, more than 13 million people were victims of identity fraud, and the number of cases rises every year. While there’s no foolproof prevention method, being proactive can help you catch a problem early, giving criminals less opportunity to wreak havoc with your personal information and finances.

  • Check your credit report. You can do this free once a year at each of the three major agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. If you notice any discrepancies, notify one of the companies. Some criminals take years to start using the credit information they’ve acquired in a breach, so stay in the habit of checking in.
  • Monitor your bank account and credit card statements for any unusual activity, and alert your bank or credit card company about a suspicious charge as soon as you can.
  • If you begin receiving calls from debt collectors on bills that are not your own, someone may have opened a line of credit in your name: Order a full credit report posthaste.
  • If your income tax return is rejected, contact the IRS immediately.

Q: My friend sent me an e-mail with a link to click—only it wasn’t my friend, I found out, and the link wasn’t real. I quickly changed my e-mail password, but I worry—can someone still access my computer?

—K. L. F., New York, New York

A: Changing your password may not be enough, as criminals use these phishing schemes to draw you to sites that can install malicious software that accesses information on your computer. To safeguard your info, scan for Trojan horses and other viruses. Scanning programs, such as McAfee, Avast!, and AVG, are available for trial and to purchase.

In the future, before you click on a link in any e-mail, hover over it with your mouse. If the URL that appears does not match the URL text in the e-mail, do not click on the link.

Q: I use my bank’s app to access my accounts online. Is it safe to do this while traveling, if I am using a hotel’s Wi-Fi, for instance?

—Ann D., Ridgefield, Connecticut

A: Unfortunately, public networks at places such as hotels, airports, and cafés may not be as secure as you think. Someone can easily set up a wireless network that appears to belong to a name you trust, which gives that person the opportunity to dig through your information.

If you must use a public network, don’t access sensitive information or make online purchases. Ask if your hotel can offer you a secure connection for a small fee.

Q: After the celebrity photo hack this year, I’m worried that the safety risks of using the cloud outweigh the benefits. What is the right way to approach this technology?

—Claire C., Atlanta, Georgia

A: According to reports, the recent cloud breach you mentioned occurred after password credentials were compromised. If you use cloud services and someone knows your password, that person can grab your info from anywhere. Establish safe online habits to avoid any mishaps:

  • Use unique passwords for all your accounts—especially on the cloud. Passwords should consist of at least eight characters, including upper- and lowercase letters, special characters, and numbers.
  • Share minimal information, and leave optional fields blank when shopping or filling out profiles online. Any clues you give hackers may help them crack your passwords.
  • Clear your browser cache and cookies regularly. They may store personal data a hacker can tap into.
  • Do not open e-mails from unknown sources, especially if an e-mail domain looks questionable. Suspicious e-mails can introduce a virus to your system, which can compromise your password.

These ideas will just get you started! Visit rd.com/cybersafety for more ways to safeguard sensitive personal information.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest