Protect your privacy

Published 9:56 am Saturday, March 27, 2010

If you took 20 minutes to search for yourself on the Internet, what information would you find? Probably more than you are comfortable with.

We put more information about ourselves online than ever before. We pay our bills online. We check the balance of our checking accounts on our phones. We file our taxes online. We post our photos online. We share about our lives with friends online through Facebook. We share what we’re doing through Twitter. We go shopping online.

As a result, we are moving rapidly into an era when protecting personal information is not only good practice but a crucial element in securing our personal identity. Today, protecting yourself online goes far beyond not sending information to people you do not know. Online hackers are actively and aggressively seeking information about individuals online. And as more and more personal information is being stored online, cyber criminals are having great successes.

While Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have continuous work to do in evaluating and creating industry requirements and standards on personal safety, we as individuals also have a responsibility to protect our family’s personal information.

I have compiled information from the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, TRUSTe and the FTC to create a checklist to help you make sure you are protecting your personal information online. The checklist includes not only best practices but practical steps you can begin to take today to keep your information secure.

■ Check your password strength. Having a strong password is the first step in securing online safety. Passwords should be at least 14 characters long and include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, punctuation and symbols. Change your passwords frequently and don’t use the same password across multiple sites. One tip from TRUSTe is to use a simple formula to vary your passwords for different sites. For example, use the first two letters of the site you are on (like Yahoo or Dominion Power) plus your pet’s name plus your birth year = yakitty59 or dokitty59.

Learn how to identify spoofed Web sites. Cyber criminals often use spoofs of legitimate Web sites to attempt to get you to disclose personal information. This technique is called “spoofing,” and the spoofed Web sites can be difficult to detect if you are not paying careful attention. If you’ve been victimized by a spoofed e-mail or Web site, you should contact your local police or sheriff’s department, and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center.

■ Look for the lock. When paying bills or purchasing products online, never submit a credit card number or other highly sensitive personal information without first making sure your connection is secure, usually noted by a lock icon either at the bottom (Windows) or near the top (Mac) of the browser window. In addition, you can look for “https” in front of the Web site address signifying a secure site.

■ Read the privacy policy. Although not always prominently posted on Web sites, nor the first page you want to read on a Web site, the privacy policy does give you a good idea of how your information will be used. Check to see if the site has a TRUSTe privacy seal or a BBBonline seal. If so, you can be confident that the Web site protects your online privacy and security.

■ Obtain a copy of your credit report regularly. With the amount of credit card and bank account information we store online, it is good practice to monitor your credit report for suspicious activity. If you do not already subscribe to a monthly credit monitoring service through your bank or insurance agency, request a free copy of your credit report each year. The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees you access to your credit report for free from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — every 12 months. is the only authorized source for the free annual credit report that’s yours by law.