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  • It is critical to prevent hackers from deleting valuable documents, accessing financial accounts, and stealing personal information.
  • A strong password that is long and difficult to guess is the best protection. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.
  • Accessing sensitive information while connected to public WiFi networks can leave students vulnerable to hackers.

The start of college can prompt a few important conversations between parents and their new undergraduate student. 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 follow these tips:

  • Use different, strong passwords
  • Choose security questions carefully
  • Enable two-factor authentication
  • Don't share your private information
  • Keep unfamiliar objects out of your computer
  • Don't open unknown links or files
  • Keep all software up to date
  • Use a VPN
  • Cover your webcam
  • Have a backup plan

Share these network security tips, and use them yourself, to help keep private information away from prying hands.

1. 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, don’t access online bank accounts or financial sites on public computers. Doing so could compromise your password because the computers are not secure. For example, a public computer could have malware that tracks keystrokes, allowing bad actors to gain your password.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Don't share your private information

Be careful about sharing personal information, be it over the phone or on social media. Hackers can often use the information you share online to guess your password or answers to security questions, or to trick you into sharing sensitive information, like your banking login. That’s why it’s important to turn on privacy control settings across all your social media accounts. 

Also, never give out personal information over the phone, particularly when someone unknown calls or texts you. The person on the other end might pretend to work for a bank, your university, or the IRS and ask for your information to "verify your account." Sometimes the caller or texter 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.

It’s also important to be cautious about what WiFi networks you use to connect your devices. Open WiFi networks may not be secure and you could inadvertently share information when you log into accounts from your device.

5. Keep unfamiliar objects out of your computer

A hacker could load a USB thumb drive with malicious software that can take over your computer. Someone could even order drives 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.

6. Don’t open unknown links or files

Another way hackers try to gain access to sensitive data is by tricking students into clicking a link or downloading a file that contains malware. Emails and texts can look like they come from an official source, like your school or bank. Treat all invitations to click a link or download a file with suspicion, and when in doubt, call the source directly to make sure it’s legitimate.

7. Keep all software up to date

Anytime there’s a new update—whether it’s an app, your operating system, or your anti-virus software—make sure you install it. Outdated systems might not account for the latest threats, which is why it’s important to ensure all your systems are running on the most recent version.

Anti-virus software can also help protect your computer from attacks while detecting and removing those that sneak through. Several companies offer free anti-virus software online and some schools have free or discounted options for enrolled students.

8. Use a VPN

Because your WiFi connection isn’t always the most secure, it’s important to subscribe to a reputable virtual private network (VPN). This will ensure all your communications online are secure and encrypted. 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. A lot of colleges offer VPNs for free, so there’s no excuse not to subscribe.

9. 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.

10. Have a backup plan

Sometimes, the unexpected happens: Laptops break, software crashes, things get stolen. The best way to ensure you’re protected from unforeseen scenarios is to regularly back up important files onto cloud drives, which can be accessed over the Internet.

Bottom line

Computers are an essential tool for college students and a valuable target for hackers. With these cybersecurity tips in mind, simple actions, such as choosing a strong password and being mindful of where you log in to important accounts, can help keep your personal information safe.

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