In the midst of the sharing revolution, people cannot get enough of checking in, posting status updates, uploading pictures and clicking the "like" and "retweet" buttons on their favorite Web pages and social media channels, all resulting in one thing: it is easier than ever for cyber criminals to steal users identities.
As people continue to share increasingly personal information online, it's easy to miss the dangers presented by sharing information with many websites they visit. A recent study found that 90 percent of Americans do not feel completely safe online, and for good reason. Most consumers assume that the websites they frequent have top-notch cybersecurity and privacy controls. Rather than assume, users should do some simple investigating on the security of these sites.
All online activity -- from using social networks to searching the Web and even using smartphones to get information -- can be a potential threat to consumers if simple security measures are ignored. As a result, what users browse is left open for others to see. Ever wonder why there are advertisements in the sidebar that are similar to your last online purchase or last Facebook "like" on a photo elsewhere on the Web? It is because search engines work with online advertisers to target your interests by monitoring your Web activity.
In another example of how user content is being shared online, photo-sharing app Instagram, which recently reached 100 million users, is facing backlash from the changes to its terms of service, essentially allowing the company to sell its users' pictures to third party vendors without any permission from users. Knowing that personal photos can be used without your permission should make you think twice about posting certain pictures.
Even using smartphones can pose threats. After all, mobile devices are just smaller versions of computers and laptops, and often are targeted as a source to steal personal information. Last year there were more than 35,000 malicious apps identified on the Android market alone. We can expect to see this number increase dramatically in 2013, considering there were only hundreds in 2011.
In addition, victims of cyber crimes have increased, impacting not only consumers but also large brands. In the past month, brands like Burger King and Jeep have been hacked, damaging their social reputation. If large brands are susceptible to these issues, everyday users must ensure their online privacy in every way possible.
Even the president is concerned with the rise of corporate hacking and cybercrime, as evidenced by his comments from the State of the Union address in which he said, "Our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems." If this is a key concern for the government, who has an abundance of safeguards against hacking, what does this mean for the average consumer?
In order to keep your online identity safe, consider these simple but effective tips:
• Change passwords often -- This trick has been around for a long time, but password management is one of the easiest yet most effective ways to maintain online security. Although using a unique, complex password is a great start for practicing account safety, take it a step further by not using the same password for multiple accounts. If one site gets hacked, there's a possibility the hacker will gain additional user information and hack into other accounts. Using smart password tactics can help keep user information secure.
• Read privacy settings and licensing agreements -- This year, make an effort to stay on top of social media security and privacy settings and turn off the geo-location option on your mobile devices. Social media websites like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram are constantly changing their privacy settings and consumers need to be aware of how their personal information is being used. Integrating higher privacy settings that only friends can view is ideal for online safety.
• Avoid public or open Wi-Fi -- When embarking on that next adventure, if you have the urge to update social networks with Tweets and Instagram images, remember that when connecting to a public or open Wi-Fi network, a hacker on the same network could intercept the information passing through your device.
• Practice safe surfing -- Find out if a website is potentially dangerous before clicking on it by using safe search plug-ins. Stick to reputable e-commerce sites. Look for a trust mark that indicates that the site has been verified as safe by a trusted third-party, like the McAfee SECURE mark. Products like SiteAdvisor use easy-to-read red, yellow, and green check marks to rate websites when users search for them.