You may be careful about locking your doors and windows and keeping your personal papers in a secure place. Depending on what you use your personal computer for; an identity thief may not need to set foot in your house to steal your personal information. You may store your Social Security number, financial records, tax returns, birth date, and bank account numbers on your computer. These tips can help you keep your computer - and the personal information it stores - safe.
- Virus protection software should be updated regularly, and patches for your operating system and other software programs should be installed to protect against intrusions and infections that can lead to the compromise of your computer files or passwords. Ideally, virus protection software should be set to automatically update each week. The Windows XP operating system also can be set to automatically check for patches and download them to your computer. Do not open files sent to you by strangers, or click on hyperlinks or download programs from people you don't know. Be careful about using file-sharing programs. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program known as "spyware," which could capture your passwords or any other information as you type it into your keyboard.
- Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1 that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. The firewall program will allow you to stop uninvited access to your computer. Without it, hackers can take over your computer, access the personal information stored on it, or use it to commit other crimes.
- Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet. When submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the browser's status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.
- Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password with a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols. A good way to create a strong password is to think of a memorable phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password, converting some letters into numbers that resemble letters. For example, "I like Milk it's good to drink," would become 1LmigTD. Don't use an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you're finished. That way, if your laptop is stolen, it's harder for a thief to access your personal information.
- Before you dispose of a computer, delete all the personal information it stored. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands or reformatting your hard drive may not be enough because the files may stay on the computer's hard drive, where they may be retrieved easily. Use a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.