Seems like the internet follows us wherever we go nowadays, whether it tags along via a smartphone, laptop, tablet, a wearable, or some combination of them all. Yet there’s something else that follows us around as well—our PII, a growing body of “personally identifiable information” that we create while banking, shopping, and simply browsing the internet. And no doubt about it, our PII is terrifically valuable.
What makes it so valuable? It’s no exaggeration to say that your PII is the key to your digital life, along with your financial and civic life as well. Aside from using it to create accounts and logins, it’s further tied to everything from your bank accounts and credit cards to your driver’s license and your tax refund.
Needless to say, your PII is something that needs protecting, so let’s take a look at several ways you can do just that.
What is PII?
What is PII? It’s information about you that others can use to identify you either directly or indirectly. Thus, that info could identify you on its own, or it could identify you when it’s linked to other identifiers, like the ones associated with the devices, apps, tools, and protocols you use.
A prime example of direct PII is your tax ID number because it’s unique and directly associated with your name. Further instances include your facial image to unlock your smartphone, your medical records, your finances, and your phone number because each of these can be easily linked back to you.
Then there are those indirect pieces of PII that act as helpers. While they may not identify you on their own, a few of them can when they’re added together. These helpers include things like internet protocol addresses, the unique device ID of your smartphone, or other identifiers such as radio frequency identification tags.
You can also find pieces of your PII in the accounts you use, like your Google to Apple IDs, which can be linked to your name, your email address, and the apps you have. You’ll also find it in the apps you use. For example, there’s PII in the app you use to map your walks and runs, because the combination of your smartphone’s unique device ID and GPS tracking can be used in conjunction with other information to identify who you are, not to mention where you typically like to do your 5k hill days. The same goes for messenger apps, which can collect how you interact with others, how often you use the app and your location information based on your IP address, GPS information, or both.
In all, there’s a cloud of PII that follows us around as we go about our day online. Some wisps of that cloud are more personally identifying than others. Yet gather enough of it and PII can create a high-resolution snapshot of you—who you are, what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and even where you’re doing it too—particularly if it gets into the wrong hands.
Remember Pig-Pen, the character straight from the old funny pages of Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown? He’s hard to forget with that ever-present cloud of dust following him around. Charlie Brown once said, “He may be carrying the soil that trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!” It’s the same with us and our PII, except the cloud surrounding us, isn’t the dust of kings and conquerors, they’re motes of digital information that are of tremendously high value to crooks and bad actors—whether for purposes of identity theft or invasion of privacy.
Protecting your PII protects your identity and privacy
With all PII we create and share on the internet, that calls for protecting it. Otherwise, our PII could fall into the hands of a hacker or identity thief and end up getting abused, in potentially painful and costly ways.
Here are several things you can do to help ensure that what’s private stays that way:
1) Use a complete security platform that can also protect your privacy
Square One is to protect your devices with comprehensive online protection software. This will defend you against the latest virus, malware, spyware, and ransomware attacks plus further protect your privacy and identity. In addition to this, it can also provide strong password protection by generating and automatically storing complex passwords to keep your credentials safer from hackers and crooks who may try to force their way into your accounts.
Further, security software can also include a firewall that blocks unwanted traffic from entering your home network, such as an attacker poking around for network vulnerabilities so that they can “break-in” to your computer and steal information.
2) Use a VPN
Also known as a virtual private network, a VPN helps protect your vital PII and other data with bank-grade encryption. The VPN encrypts your internet connection to keep your online activity private on any network, even public networks. Using a public network without a VPN can increase your cybersecurity risk because others on the network can potentially spy on your browsing and activity.
If you’re new to the notion of using a VPN, check out this article on VPNs and how to choose one so that you can get the best protection and privacy possible.
3) Keep a close grip on your Social Security Number
In the U.S., the Social Security Number (SSN) is one of the most prized pieces of PII as it unlocks the door to employment, finances, and much more. First up, keep a close grip on it. Literally. Store your card in a secure location. Not your purse or wallet.
Certain businesses and medical practices may ask you for your SSN for billing purposes and the like. You don’t have to provide it (although some businesses could refuse service if you don’t), and you can always ask if they will accept some alternative form of information. However, there are a handful of instances where an SSN is a requirement. These include:
- Employment or contracting with a business.
- Group health insurance.
- Financial and real estate transactions.
- Applying for credit cards, car loans, and so forth.
Be aware that hackers often get a hold of SSNs because the organization holding that information gets hacked or compromised itself. Minimizing how often you provide your SSN can offer an extra degree of protection.
4) Protect your files
Protecting your files with encryption is a core concept in data and information security, and thus it’s a powerful way to protect your PII. It involves transforming data or information into code that requires a digital key to access it in its original, unencrypted format. For example, McAfee Total Protection includes File Lock, which is our file encryption feature that lets you lock important files in secure digital vaults on your device.
Additionally, you can also delete sensitive files with an application such as McAfee Shredder™, which securely deletes files so that thieves can’t access them. (Quick fact: deleting files in your trash doesn’t actually delete them in the truest sense. They’re still there until they’re “shredded” or otherwise overwritten such that they can’t be restored.)
5) Steer clear of those internet “quizzes”
Which Marvel Universe superhero are you? Does it really matter? After all, such quizzes and social media posts are often grifting pieces of your PII in a seemingly playful way. While you’re not giving up your SSN, you may be giving up things like your birthday, your pet’s name, your first car … things that people often use to compose their passwords or use as answers to common security questions on banking and financial sites. The one way to pass this kind of quiz is not to take it!
6) Be on the lookout for phishing attacks
A far more direct form of separating you from your PII are phishing attacks. Posing as emails from known or trusted brands, financial institutions, or even a friend or family member a cybercrook’s phishing attack will attempt to trick you into sharing important information like your logins, account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on under the guise of providing customer service.
How do you spot such emails? Well, it’s getting a little tougher nowadays because scammers are getting more sophisticated and can make their phishing emails look nearly legitimate. However, there are several ways you can spot a phishing email and phony web pages as outlined here.
Comprehensive security offers another layer of prevention, in this case by offering browser protection like our own Web Advisor, which will alert you in the event you come across suspicious links and downloads that can steal your PII or otherwise expose you to attacks.
7) Keep mum in your social media profile
With social engineering attacks that deceive victims by posing as people the victim knows and the way we can sometimes overshare a little too much about our lives, you can see why a social media profile is a potential goldmine for cybercriminals.
Two things you can do to help protect your PII from being at risk via social media: one, think twice about what PII you might be sharing in that post or photo—like the location of your child’s school or the license plate on your car; two, set your profile to private so that only friends can see it. Review your privacy settings regularly to keep your profile information out of the public eye. And remember, nothing is 100% private on the internet. Never post anything you wouldn’t want to see shared.
8) Look for HTTPS when you browse
The “S” stands for secure. Any time you are shopping, banking, or sharing any kind of PII, look for “https” at the start of the web address. Some browsers will also indicate HTTP by showing a small “lock” icon. Doing otherwise on plain HTTP sites exposes your PII for anyone who cares to monitor that site for unsecured connections.
9) Lock your devices
By locking your devices, you protect yourself that much better from PII and data theft in the event your device is lost, stolen, or even left unattended for a short stretch. Use your password, PIN, facial recognition, thumbprint ID, what have you. Just lock your stuff. In the case of your smartphones, read up on how you can locate your phone or even wipe it remotely if you need to. Apple provides iOS users with a step-by-step guide for remotely wiping devices, and Google offers up a guide for Android users as well.
10) Keep tabs on your credit—and your PII
Theft of your PII can of course lead to credit cards and other accounts being opened falsely in your name. What’s more, it can sometimes be some time before you even become aware of it, until perhaps your credit score takes a hit or a bill collector comes calling. By checking your credit, you can address any issues that come up, as companies typically have a clear-cut process for contesting any fraud. You can get a free credit report in the U.S. via the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and likewise, other nations like the UK have similar free offerings as well.
Consider identity theft protection as well. A strong identity theft protection package pairs well with keeping track of your credit and offers cyber monitoring that scans the dark web to detect for misuse of your PII. With our identity protection service, we help relieve the burden of identity theft if the unfortunate happens to you with $1M coverage for lawyer fees, travel expenses, lost wages, and more.
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