Caution and common sense: keys to staying safe online

(BPT) - Due to the explosion of online transactions, social media and mobile technology, cybercrime can happen almost anywhere at any time. The good news is that it doesn't take a computer genius to protect yourself and your family from the proliferation of cyber criminals who are running scams or seeking to steal your identity.

Cybercriminals victimized 71 million people in the United States in 2012, according to a recent report by the electronic security company Symantec. The problem has become so bad that FBI Director Robert Muller expects cybercrime to eventually overtake both terrorism and counter intelligence as his agency's No. 1 crime-fighting priority.

'Cybercrime has become a national plague that can damage us all ,' says Don Culpepper, who specializes in family safety and security at Fireman's Fund. 'But much of the time it's our own online behavior that opens us up to crime. By changing the way we interact online, by becoming more aware of our behavior, we can take a huge step toward becoming cyber secure.'

By refraining from giving out personal information, you can keep your accounts and identity safe from fraud and theft. Never give out any personal information via email, the telephone or through the mail unless you are 100 percent certain that the person or organization you're dealing with is legitimate and you have initiated the contact.

'Your greatest tool to protect yourself and your family from fraud of all kinds, including cybercrime and Internet fraud, is common sense,' Culpepper says. 'Trust your instincts and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.'

Tips for staying cyber secure:

* Provision your home Wi-Fi router with a high-level encrypted firewall and make it undiscoverable.

* Monitor you children's social network and mobile computing activity, and stay up-to-date on privacy settings.

* Make certain that you're adequately insured to withstand a loss.

* Use sophisticated passwords and update them regularly.

Still, there are times when even savvy Internet users can be vulnerable to crime. Fake pop-up alerts that claim your computer has been hacked or is infected with a virus direct you to third-party websites that ask for personal information or direct you to download an actual piece of malware. These programs can run through your computer looking for personal information to send back to the criminals. Many of these programs look legitimate. If you're not familiar with the program that has popped up on your computer, simply close it without clicking on any links.

Companies you interact with, such as banks and retail stores, transfer your information digitally. If those companies' networks are compromised, then your personal information is at risk. Private information you use to identify yourself like usernames, birthdays and even the answers to personal questions can be collected from a compromised system to commit fraud.

'Wi-Fi networks can be especially vulnerable to hacking, particularly public networks that many of us rely on daily,' Culpepper says.

Once criminals have this information, they are able to do all sorts of damage. They can get driver's licenses or other identification in your name, access your bank accounts, open utility accounts, apply for jobs and apartments in your name and even take out loans.

Once your identity has been stolen, it is very difficult to stop the damage, but here are a few steps you should take immediately upon discovering the fraud:

* Monitor your credit report and place a fraud alert on your file with one of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion or Experian.

* Close the accounts you suspect have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

* File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

* Create a police report.

In addition, many insurance companies offer policies that can help you recover from the ravages of identity theft. Typical coverage can include attorney fees, new loan application fees, lost income as a result of missing work to deal with the identity theft, among other things.

'While it seems like cybercriminals are always one step ahead of our security counter measures, there are things we can do to stay safe,' Culpepper says. 'Use common sense, stay alert and regularly install and update the security software on your computers and mobile devices.'