We live in a world that is continually advancing towards a digital landscape, and data is at the very centre of what is known as “the information age”. The giants of this internet revolution like Google, Youtube, Wikipedia and Facebook are masters of data searching, management, and storage, giving us a means to harness the massive amounts of data that are now accessible in an ever-expanding range of devices. There’s no doubt that we are moving towards a world where your personal data will be easier to share between friends and also more accessible to unexpected foes.

The ICCC (Internet Crime Complaint Center) reports that annual cyber crime complaints have increased 667.8% when comparing data from the 2001 annual report with 2009. A considerable amount of these cyber crimes involve theft of sensitive personal data which can be used in any number of scams, including ID theft and credit card fraud, amounting to 24.5% of the total cyber crimes reported last year. It’s an unfortunate consequence of our digital reality that we must take precautions with our sensitive data as cyber crime rates increase every year.

However, there are some basic steps you can take to help prevent the theft and misuse of your personal data while online. There’s a good chance that at this very moment you have some personal information like your credit card number, bank account information or address online, perhaps in some of your favorite and most visited sites.

It’s a good rule to avoid saving sensitive information on sites that allow you to store this information for easy access (i.e. your credit card details). While this can be convenient for making repeat purchases, you greatly increase your risk of fraud by storing this data on any website, no matter how secure. Manual re-entry of this critical information is a good step in preventing unauthorized theft of your information in the event of a security breach.

Another common behavior that opens the door to cyber crime is to use the same password across multiple websites. The importance of creating strong passwords is a topic that has been covered in a previous article and it’s equally vital that the sites that do have sensitive information about you aren’t also using the same password. Otherwise, a cyber criminal that gains your password from one site would then have access to other sites, making the situation even worse.

You can further reduce the risk of your data being stolen in transit when you are making an online transaction, entering your personal details, or even logging onto a website by checking that the URL has an HTTPS instead of just HTTP. The added (S) indicates that the communication between your computer and their server is securely encrypted.

It’s similarly important to only use a secured wireless network, as open networks transmit every packet of data over the air, opening the door for some clever hacker to scan unencrypted information with little to no detection. When connecting to a secure wireless network, make sure you are using at least WPA or WPA2 encryption standards, as basic WEP encryption (most commonly used) can easily be hacked with widely available security tools.

The last bit of advice, if not one of the most important, is to make sure you are using an up-to-date web browser as this small step helps to prevent a wide range of security loop holes, bugs and vulnerabilities that are more easily exploited in older browsers like Internet Explorer 6-7. If you are using an older browser, you may greatly reduce the risk of data theft during your online sessions by upgrading to either Firefox (www.firefox.com) or Google Chrome (www.google.com/chrome), both of which are available for free. No matter which browser you choose, it’s important that you use the latest version and make sure to enable frequent updating of security patches.

Taking these steps into account when accessing the internet will significantly improve your online data security, but keep in mind that cyber criminals are always looking for new ways to gain access to you and your information. Check back to this section for frequent tips and strategies to make your online journey through our digitally connected world just a little bit safer.