By Molly Triffin
This story originally appeared on LearnVest as “7 Ways to Help Hack-Proof Your Smartphone.”
With so many scary headlines about data breaches and ID theft hitting the news cycle, you’ve probably loaded your home computer with antivirus software, installed a firewall and created strong password protection.
Yet odds are you haven’t given much thought to how secure your smartphone is.
Unfortunately, criminals have—and they just might take advantage of your vulnerability. Smartphone malware infections have surged 96% from 2015 to 2016, according to the Nokia Threat Intelligence Report; and 71% of phones have no security features to defend against this data-stealing software, according to a survey by Alcatel-Lucent Motive.
“Our mobile devices are small digital assistants that carry as much—if not more—very personal information as our desktop or laptop,” says personal security expert Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity. “A lost, stolen or hacked phone provides an efficient way for a thief to steal your identity or drain your bank account.”
These warnings come just in time for Data Privacy Day. Sponsored by the National Cyber Security Alliance, it’s a global effort held every January 28 to build awareness about the importance of privacy and protecting personal information. LearnVest is a supporter of Data Privacy Day and the belief that organizations, businesses and government have a responsibility to shield personal info by respecting privacy, safeguarding data and enabling trust.
In honor of Data Privacy Day, we are sharing seven smartphone security precautions to help keep your private data out of the hands of hackers.
Update Your Operating System
You know those annoying banners that pop up on your screen letting you know that there’s an operating system update you should download? Don’t put it off. These updates typically include fixes for security issues found in the old operating system, says Siciliano. The longer you wait, the longer you’ll be hacker bait.
Clean Up Your Apps
Maybe you’re addicted to Snapchat, Pokemon GO or Instagram—we all have our favorite apps. Yet many phone apps are fertile ground for infection. “If hackers find a security hole in an app, they can exploit it to access your personal data,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “There’s no way to know what kind of information is being collected about you and where it’s being distributed.”
On a regular basis, do a KonMari to your phone and delete apps you no longer use. The danger is that outdated versions could be running in the background of your phone, exposing you without you realizing it.
Next, make sure your phone automatically updates your remaining apps, since most updates include security fixes. It’s simple: On an iPhone, go into Settings, scroll to “iTunes & App Store,” and check that “Updates” is selected for Automatic Downloads. For Android, open “Settings” in the menu section of the Play Store app to verify that you have the “Auto-update apps” feature turned on.
Remember to log out of apps that contain sensitive info when you’re done using them. Finally, download apps only from iTunes or Google Play, which should help ensure that they’re legitimate.
Lock It Up
Not locking your phone is like leaving the door wide open to hackers. So make sure your auto-lock function activates after a short period of inactivity, say one minute, and create a powerful password.
“Set up both a biometric security measure, meaning a finger tap or swipe, as well as a passcode,” Kaiser says. “If your phone offers you the option of a 6-digit password over a 4-digit one, opt for that. The longer it is, the stronger it is.” Avoid obvious configurations like 0000, 1234 or your birthday in favor of a custom alphanumeric code that’s harder to crack.
And of course, all apps containing personal data, whether it relates to banking, email, or just your Amazon account, should also be password-protected.
Beware of Public Wi-Fi
Free public Wi-Fi sounds awesome in theory—after all, it reduces the burden on your data plan. But tapping into a network that’s not secure makes it ridiculously easy for hackers to intercept and capture your info.
While it’s usually not too bad to use public Wi-Fi for web searches, Netflix and the news, avoid entering in any passwords or personal deets, like your credit card number. “If you do have to access your email or make a purchase, switch over to your cellphone’s data plan connection, which is much more private,” Kaiser says. For the same reason, turn off your Bluetooth whenever you’re not actively using it.
One way to help protect yourself is by using a virtual private network (VPN), which is software that encrypts your wireless session across a public network. Some devices (like a company-issued phone) come with a built-in VPN; you can check your status under general settings. Otherwise you can buy one via the app store for about $5 to $10 a month. “Some people use VPN for all of their wireless access, even in their home,” Kaiser says. “It’s safer than just a secure Wi-Fi network with a password.”
You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but make VPN use a habit when you’re accessing sensitive material no matter where you are, especially if you live in an apartment building or densely populated area.