A college of mine once told me your data is as safe as the password you use to secure it. In many ways he's right, but the temptation to use simple passwords and common keys to our online world can be enormous.
Also, many people rely on their browsers to remember passwords, but the bad news is that most browsers do a really bad job at security. At the time of writing none of the major browsers have proven themselves secure, and retrieving password data from a local machine isn't that difficult.
I now use a service called LastPass which is a password manager that both secures your logins and lets you access them on any browser. For me, the nicest feature is its unique password generator.
Be careful what you install
My friend with the empty account did finally discover the root cause of his iTunes downfall: a key logger. While he can't recall installing anything nefarious, something did indeed get onto his system and gradually feed all of his valuable data back to the scamsters.
The moral of the story is be careful what you install and watch the sites you visit. If you are on a PC install a security suite with anti-virus and anti-spyware at a minimum, so your machine is protected all the time it's online. And ensure updates are implemented, ideally automatically. For belt and braces, it's also worth doing a regular sweep of the system with SpyBot Search and Destroy as no software is 100% effective. Mac users can rest a little easier as the OSX is UNIX-based so it is extremely difficult for malware to cause too much harm (although unlike some Mac fanatics I would always recommend using anti-virus software).
The case for VPNs
Another good tip, although this may be a step too far for many, is to secure your web communications with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). While a VPN is normally associated with business networks, it does add an additional level of security on your personal laptop.
With threats such as hotspot hacking (where users' accounts are stolen while using wi-fi in cafes and other public places) on the rise, securing this traffic while you're out and about is important. A VPN works by creating a private virtual tunnel between your computer and the VPN provider. This prevents anyone viewing the web traffic between these two points, including logins or private data.
VPNs also act as a buffer between your machine and the internet. If you set it up to cover all web traffic your IP address is effectively hidden, and if there is an attack it will be directed at the VPN provider. There are many VPN providers out there, such as Stronvpn, with a number of very reasonable price plans and features.
Taking online security seriously needs to be an essential part of our daily lives, however it doesn't need to be a huge chore. There are enough tools and services out there that are designed to make our lives safer, and this has to be a good thing, unless you're one of the bad guys!
By Ben Dyer, Product Development Director, Sellerdeck. Originally published on BusinessZone.