The start of college can prompt a few important conversations between parents and their new undergrad. Advice on how to do laundry and encouragement to stay focused and study hard are common. Warnings about cybersecurity should be just as important, considering many students' computers are a gateway to their educational, personal and financial lives.

A successful hacker might be able to delete valuable documents, access financial accounts, steal and sell personal information or demand a ransom to unlock a compromised computer. That's why it's important to:

  • Use different, strong passwords
  • Choose security questions carefully
  • Enable two-factor authentication
  • Don't share your private information over the phone
  • Keep unfamiliar objects out of your computer
  • Install and update anti-virus software
  • Cover your webcam

"There is no single answer to make your world secure," says Eric Meadows, a cloud cybersecurity expert at Check Point Software Technologies. However, there are many helpful steps you can take to limit your risk. Share these tips, and use them yourself, to help keep private information away from prying hands.

Use Different, Strong Passwords

Using a different password for each site or service can help prevent one data breach from putting the rest of your accounts at risk. It's also important to use strong passwords, such as a random series of letters, numbers and symbols. Short passwords, particularly those with common words or names, may be easier to crack.

Rather than trying to remember or write down dozens of complex passwords, you can use a password management service to create and store unique passwords for you. All you'll need to do is remember one master password for the service.

But even if you have an especially strong password, Meadows cautions students not to access online bank accounts or financial sites on public computers. Doing so could compromise your password because the computers "are not secure," Meadows says, "and you may leave your credentials behind for anyone's use."

Choose Security Questions Carefully

Ever have to answer a security question to confirm your identity or reset a password? While you may think your high school mascot or favorite movie are impossible to guess, a persistent attacker might be able to find that information on your social media accounts. Try to choose questions that don't have publicly available answers and, when possible, pick different security questions for each service.

Another option is to use a false, and easy-to-remember, answer to common security questions. For example, you could always use a grandparent's first name when prompted to enter your mother's maiden name.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security to your account and ensures a password alone won't give someone access. When offered and enabled, the system will prompt anyone logging in from an unrecognized device to enter a password and a second security code, which is often sent to the account holder's phone or email. Unless someone knows your password and has access to your phone or email, they won't be able to get into your account.

Don't Share Your Private Information Over the Phone

Be careful about sharing personal information over the phone, particularly when someone calls you. The person on the other end might pretend to work for a bank, your university or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and ask for your information to "verify your account." Sometimes the caller tries to create a false sense of urgency by saying your account is in danger or threatening you with a lawsuit.

Only share personal information when you initiate the call, and be cautious about what you share even when that's the case. Also remember that many large organizations will never ask for your password over the phone, by email, text or in person.

"Security extends beyond the laptop," Meadows says. "You should always consider what you connect to with your mobile devices, and insure they are protected as well." For example, open WiFi networks may not be secure and you could inadvertently share information when you log into accounts from your phone or tablet.

Keep Unfamiliar Objects Out of Your Computer

A hacker could load USB thumb drives or CDs with malicious software that can take over your computer. Someone could even order drives and discs with the school's logo and scatter them around campus, waiting for an unsuspecting student to pick one up. In short, only put something into your computer if you know where it came from and trust the source.

Install and Update Anti-Virus Software

Anti-virus software can help protect your computer from attacks while detecting and removing those that sneak through. It's important to keep anti-virus software installed and up to date on all of your computers. There are options for even the most frugal college student. Several companies offer free anti-virus software online and some schools have free options for enrolled students.

"For additional protection, subscribe to a reputable virtual private network (VPN) to ensure your communications online are secure and encrypted," Meadows says. VPNs create a secure connection between your device and a remote server, which can make it difficult for someone to snoop on you while you're online. This may be especially important if you're working on an open WiFi network around campus or at a local coffee shop.

Cover Your Webcam

Covering your webcam with a piece of paper, tape or sticker is an easy way to prevent potential exploitation. Hackers who successfully take control of a computer might be able to activate the webcam while keeping the indicator light off. They could then record whatever the webcam sees and then use or sell the information they gather or blackmail the owner with a threat to release videos.

Bottom Line

Computers are an essential tool for college students and a valuable target for hackers. Parents, including those who are novice computer users, can help a college-bound child keep their personal information safe by sharing valuable cybersecurity lessons.

"Security and cyber security is always multi-layered," Meadows says.

With this in mind, emphasize the importance of simple actions, such as choosing a strong password and being mindful of when and where you log in to important accounts. Add software protections, such as anti-virus software and a VPN. Then look for physical protection, such as a lock to secure a computer to a dorm room or library desk.

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