We keep handling more and more of our financial and business affairs online, via our desktops, laptops, tablets, and even phones. And cyber-crime—practices designed to breach a company's or an individual's computer security system and steal information and/or wreck havoc—just keeps on growing, perpetuated not just by thieves and scam artists, but by political and social activitists, aka hacktivists.

There is no relief in sight for entities or businesses beleaguered with cyber-crime, or those fighting against it. Here's how you, as an individual, can prepare and hopefully avoid becoming a victim.

key takeaways

  • Think of complicated passwords, and don't allow others to access your password-protected sites without you being present.
  • Encrypt sensitive files, or keep them on a computer with no internet access, on a flash drive, or even on paper.
  • Avoid dubious sites and chatrooms.
  • Never respond to a text, email or pop-up that asks for your login info.

Prepare the Proper Password

Many a hacker enters so-called secured websites by exploiting people's weak, easily guessable passwords. It's understandable that you want your passwords to be easy to remember, but that's putting your computer and possibly your finances at risk. Passwords should be at least eight characters; include a combination of numbers, letters and symbols; and not be words related to you. Instead, use a memory device. Use the first letter of each word and include a date. "Ericka was born in Chicago in 1998." This might make your password "EwbiC1998$" (add a symbol of your choice at the end).

You might also consider using a password manager, which assigns and stores unique, encrypted passwords for different sites for you. You log in to the manager, then it applies the password to the site. You don't have to remember it—in fact, you don't even know it—but since it's not stored on the site, a hacker can't get at it.

Keep It to Yourself

Don't allow others to access your password-protected sites without you being present. If someone does, change your password. Your computer may be safe—but what if theirs isn't? Even the most well-meaning person can accidentally cause you to be victimized, if their device gets infected and yields up its history to a cyber-attacker.

Go Low-Tech

If you have a spreadsheet of passwords or other digital files that are highly sensitive, consider keeping them on an old computer not connected to the Internet. If you don't have an extra computer, encrypt the files using one of the many free file encryption tools. Or, old-school as it sounds: Print out the files, store them safely, and delete the electronic versions.

Maintain Two Places

Another layer of protection could involve keeping the files in two locations. Copy the encrypted files to a DVD or flash drive and give it to a trusted family member or friend. If your computer is infected by a virus and temporarily unusable, those files are still available to you.

Stay Out of Bad Neighborhoods

We know that some behaviors and actions put us at greater risk of being assaulted, robbed, or victimized by some other crime. The internet is the same way. Going to hacker chatrooms, viewing adult content, or going to sites that you know are scams put you at higher risk for a cyberattack than staying with more trusted sites.

Don't Fall for Pop-ups

Fraudulent emails and text messages are not only common, they're getting increasingly convincing. If an e-mail or pop-up window asks you to enter your username or password, don't do it. Instead, open your browser and go to the site directly. If you're still not convinced, contact the company or entity that supposedly contacted you. Reputable companies will never ask you for your login information through an e-mail.

The Bottom Line

If you're worried about your online banking, credit card or other financial activities making you susceptible to cyber-attack—you should be. To avoid being victimized by your actions, concentrate on what you can do to protect yourself and your computer. And check your financial accounts regularly to ensure no fraudulent activity has taken place. If there's ever anything you don't recognize, contact the financial institution immediately.