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How to protect your personal user data online

As a business professional these days, you likely spend a good amount of time on the Internet - both at work and at home. It's a convenient way to stay in touch with clients, co-workers, friends and family, and there are all kinds of important tasks that can be accomplished online. But chances are you have a lot of sensitive personal data scattered across various websites. With daily reports of large-scale hacking and identity theft, it's more crucial than ever to make sure your information is being protected online.

The websites you frequent have a big impact on the safety of your information, and some are better than others. In a recent ProOpinion poll, 31 percent of business professionals thought that Google protected their information best out of the major technology companies. Apple was a close second, with 28 percent of business professionals, while companies like Yahoo and Facebook only received 4 and 5 percent of votes, respectively.

If you're looking for clear ways to better protect your personal information online, use these tips and tricks to prevent a major identity theft crisis.

Download security software
Whether it's on your work or personal computer, security software is a must. Anti-virus software, anti-spyware software and a firewall will help protect your computer from intrusions and infections that could put your files and passwords at risk, reported the Federal Trade Commission, so do some product research to find one that works for you. Update these protections on a regular basis and don't let your service plans expire. If something suspicious comes up in a scan, take the necessary actions to eliminate it.

"Sometimes cookies can be used for data mining, which tracks your activities on the Web and records them for marketing purposes."

Manage your cookies
The Electronic Frontier Foundation stressed the importance of turning on cookie notices in your Web browser and using cookie management software or infomediaries. Cookies are pieces of information that websites store on your computer. Usually, they come in handy for storing things like passwords and user IDs so you don't have to type them in every time you log on to your personal computer. But sometimes cookies can be used for data mining, which tracks your activities on the Web and records them for marketing purposes. Most companies keep this information to themselves, but others share their cookies with clients who are trying to target you for their own purposes. Whether you browse on Mozilla, Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari, there's a way to control the cookies your computer stores so you're not putting your personal information in harm's way. If you're not sure how to get to these features, contact your browser's customer service.

Be selective when giving out personal information
Sign into any social media site and you're bound to run across instances of your contacts oversharing information. Hopefully, you know better. The FTC pointed out that your social media posts can give away information about your life that thieves can use it to do things like answer "challenge" questions on your accounts and get access to your bank accounts and personal information. Make your profiles private if possible, and limit the amount of personal information you provide. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number or account numbers.

Keep a lookout for impersonators
As McAfee pointed out, phishing scams use fraudulent emails and websites that pretend to be legitimate businesses to get you to reveal private account or login information. Never give out your personal information through email or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or know beyond doubt who you're speaking with. The FTC warns not to click on links sent in emails from companies that claim to have an account with you and require personal information. Instead, go to the company's website and contact customer service.

xBeware of websites or email addresses that contact you for your personal information.

Strengthen your passwords
If you have the same password for multiple online accounts, it's time to change them. If someone were to get ahold of this password, he or she would have access to all of your personal information. Use different passwords for your various accounts and make sure they go above and beyond simple words or phrases that someone who knows you could guess. Use numbers, special characters and capital letters to make the password more difficult to guess. Time magazine suggested using a password manager program to remember all of your passwords and generate strong ones that you can choose to automatically enter into login fields by clicking a button.

Clear your used electronics
Before you upgrade to a new computer or get yourself a new smartphone, make sure your data is completely wiped. The FTC recommended using a wipe utility program to overwrite the hard drive. Before getting rid of a mobile device, find out how to delete all of your information permanently and save or transfer the information to your new device. Remove the memory or SIM card and delete the phone book, calls logs, voicemails, messages, folders, Web history and photos.

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