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Simple strategies to stay safe online after Cyber Security Awareness Month

October is Cyber Security Awareness Month, and as it winds to a close, it’s a great time to reflect on how to stay safe online and protect your personal and professional financial information. But being vigilant and aware shouldn’t stop on October 31st.

The latest data from Statistics Canada shows a significant jump in the number of reported cyber crime incidents in 2020, increasing to 63,523 from 48,318 the year prior. Virtually every private or public organization—from not-for-profits and municipalities to major banks and small to medium-sized businesses—have become a target.

And cybersecurity isn’t just a consideration for businesses. An online breach or incident of fraud could impact your credit rating or lead to potentially catastrophic identity theft. With an entire family online, clicking on links, downloading content and visiting websites as younger children increasingly use connected devices, the risks are mounting.

“While we’ve made cybersecurity a top priority across our entire team here at Newport,” says Pam Brenman, Newport Private Wealth’s Chief Compliance Officer, “we also want to share that message with our clients—many of whom own businesses—so they’re aware of the tools and programs available to keep their people and financial information secure.”

Awareness and implementing good online security practices doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are simple (yet often overlooked) cybersecurity tips to help you, your employees and your family stay safe online.

Protect your privacy in public

As Brenman notes, many of us are now aware of the risks of logging onto unsecured, public Wi-Fi networks. That free internet at your local coffee shop may not be as safe as you think. That’s especially true if your phone or laptop’s auto-joining features has been enabled.

Auto-joining means devices will connect to available Wi-Fi networks without prompting you or giving you an opportunity to decline—or recognize a questionable network. Using a personal hotspot is always a preferred option. Auto-enabled Bluetooth connectivity can also be a problem as it opens a door for hackers to pair with your device and steal data. So, remember to disable Bluetooth’s automatic pairing feature and always turn it off when not needed. As a bonus, it saves your battery life too.

The same goes for web browsers that remember and fill in our passwords automatically. It’s always best to take the extra minute to log in every time. A much bigger issue is that most of us rely on one or two passwords across our digital lives. Good password hygiene is essential: never save passwords in your browser, never share them with anyone and remember to change them on a regular basis.

And finally, even though most of us don’t think twice about using public chargers in hotels or airports to power up mobile devices, even that habit can be risky. “USB charging stations can be loaded with malware and deposited onto an unsuspecting user’s mobile device,” Brenman points out. Instead, she recommends using a normal power socket with an adapter and your own USB cable to avoid being compromised.

Don’t fall prey to phishing scams

Hackers are clever and will use “phishing” attacks—a form of social engineering that uses fake emails and shrewd questioning—to trick users into revealing passwords, answers to security verification questions and other important personal details.

A common misperception is that it’s mainly seniors or less-sophisticated users who fall prey to phishing attacks—and we do know of an elderly mother of one Newport client who was nearly tricked into wiring a large sum to an overseas account before her bank sensed trouble and stopped the transaction.

But the reality is that hackers have become increasingly sophisticated, using names and personal details to lure you into that first click. If you receive a business or personal email that appears to be from a legitimate email, but the tone doesn’t seem right, or even a small detail is off, take a pause before responding and especially before clicking on any attached links. Alertness can help you dodge a cybersecurity bullet.

Stay safe at home

We live multi-faceted lives and the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred. At the same time, our electronic devices are being used personally and professionally to email and share documents, to manage our social media accounts or shop online. In fact, virtually everything we do has some sort of digital interaction—and every interaction is an opportunity for cyber mischief.

Yet we sometimes set a different standard for cybersecurity vigilance in our home and work lives. That’s a very big risk—and it’s why Brenman advises following the same cybersecurity best practices at home as we do at work. That means:

  • Using separate electronic devices for work and personal use
  • Using a virtual private network (VPN) to access work networks away from the office
  • Unplugging or muting connected voice assistants such as an Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri when not in use to ensure they’re not listening to private conversations, and remember to secure your router and login for these devices with strong passwords
  • Regularly updating apps through the app store (not from websites), and updating router and modem firmware
  • Setting unique passwords for connected home devices such as refrigerators or smart speakers
  • Restricting app access and ensuring that privacy settings are activated

Keep it simple

When in doubt, Brenman’s advice is to think twice before making that first click. If there is any hesitation, ignore and immediately delete the message. Always being on guard is essential. The steps are simple, even if applying them at all times can be a challenge.

“Most cybersecurity comes down to vigilance, awareness and proactive training,” she explains.

“It pays to invest in cyber security awareness, both personally and professionally. Just because Cyber Security Awareness Month ends in a few days, don’t let your guard down on Nov. 1st and beyond.”