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6 steps to protect your data from hackers and hardware failure

Internet-assisted identity theft and other hacking-based crimes aren't new, but now that many people manage virtually all of their sensitive personal information on their computers, the consequences of being hacked can be truly dire. By the same token, more mundane kinds of data loss — such as hard drive failure, which is extremely common — can completely upend your life if you haven't prepared for them. Today we're going to discuss a checklist of six simple, rational steps that'll help protect you against hackers and data loss.

This recent Fusion article serves as an unsettling example of just how easy it is for hackers to steal someone's identity, and how serious the fallout can be. Its author, journalist Kevin Roose, challenged two professional hackers to see if they could steal his personal information. Each of them did so successfully and easily — one hacker managed to lock Roose out of his cell phone account by simply calling the carrier and pretending to be his (non-existent) wife. "I wanna take my computer and throw it into the deepest part of the ocean, and I want to become a hermit and never touch a piece of technology again," says a disturbed Roose in the accompanying video.

Throwing your computer into the sea isn't an option for most people, but there are plenty of ways to protect yourself against being hacked. And If you make smart decisions and take some basic precautions, you can protect your personal data not only against hackers, but other kinds of data loss as well. We've prepared a checklist of these precautions, complete with links to some well-regarded services that provide them. These practices can help you avoid a major personal catastrophe, cheaply and without much effort — a great return on your investment of time and money.

1. Protect your computer with antivirus software.

  • Users of both Macs and PCs can benefit from installing antivirus measures.

  • ClamXav and Avira are some popular options for Macs, while Norton and Kaspersky work on PCs.

2. Use wireless networks safely.

  • Always be sure to password-protect your home wifi network.

  • If you use public wifi networks frequently, consider using virtual private network (VPN) software for security's sake. VPN software will establish a secure connection when you’re on a wifi network, so that your data is much harder to steal as it passes across the network.

  • Some popular and well-regarded VPN apps include Cloak VPN, ExpressVPN and Buffered VPN (for Macs), or Private Internet Access VPN and Hotspot Shield Elite (for PCs).

  • VPN services such as Cloak and Tunnelbear also offer iPhone- and Android-compatible versions for your phone.

3. Change up your passwords.

  • Whatever you do, don't use the same password everywhere. Try to use a different password for any online account that contains financial or otherwise sensitive information.

  • Make sure you use strong passwords — longer passwords that feature fewer common words and have a broader variety of characters are generally stronger.

  • You can use a password-strength testing service like Password Meter to determine the strength of your passwords.

  • If you find multiple passwords hard to keep track of, try using a password-tracking service such as LastPass. (Though if you do, be very sure to use a secure, difficult-to-crack password!)

4. Use two-factor authentication.

  • This extra layer of security typically works by requiring you to enter a second password when you log into an account from a device you've never used to log into that account before, much in the way that you must both swipe your card and enter a PIN when you take money out of an ATM.

  • Many smartphone apps allow you to protect your online accounts with two-factor authentication; the best-known such app is Google Authenticator (for iPhones and Androids). This form of two-factor authentication makes it much harder to hack your accounts because logging in from a new device requires both your password and your smartphone itself.

  • Two-factor authentication is especially valuable for accounts that contain the most sensitive and potentially damaging information. Your email account, your Facebook account, your Dropbox account, and your banking accounts are all good candidates for two-factor authentication.

5. Make sure that you don't lose your data to a mundane accident.

  • Even if you don't have a run-in with a hacker, you can still lose your sensitive personal data to a hard drive failure. Hard drives don't have long shelf lives; it's not a question of if they'll fail, but when.

  • Use a web-syncing service such as iDrive or Carbonite to back up your computer regularly.

  • Back up your files locally using an external hard drive. Such drives have become very cheap — some 500-gigabyte hard drives cost less than $50. Apple's Time Machine utility is great for automatically backing up your data locally.

  • Combining local backups with web-syncing cloud backups ensures that you'll still be covered if one of your backup systems fails. (If there's a drastic leak in your apartment that destroys both your computer and your external hard drive, for instance.)

6. Take advanced steps if you're still concerned.

  • Services like Credit Karma can help you track your credit score — sudden changes to your score can tip you off if your identity has been stolen.

  • The Little Snitch app can inform you of when other apps on your computer — including malware — send information elsewhere on the internet, and allow you the option to stop them.

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