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Protecting Your Family in the Digital Age

As our lives become more and more digital, families face increasing threats of cybercrime. Here are some ways to avoid becoming a victim.

There's little doubt that the next generation of today's families will grow up with open and continual access to technology. This generation, more than any before, will be "digital natives," meaning they won't have ever lived without applications (apps), email, the Internet, social networks and mobile devices.

The numbers are staggering: Estimates suggest that an additional 1 billion people will have access to the Internet over the next five years, and they will be doing so almost exclusively via smartphones.1 There's no question that these devices provide convenience and play a growing role in our lives, but they also allow for increasing financial risks. Because people accustomed to constant online access may not fully understand these risks, never before has it been more important for everyone to protect their assets and identity from cybercrime and those who commit it.

Think You've Been Hacked?

Do these 5 things immediately.

Change all your passwords.

Disconnect your computer from the Internet.

Scan your computer for infected files or malicious programs.

Contact a security expert, and request that credit agencies put out a fraud alert.

File a police report.

Attacks can come from anywhere. For example, a family noticed, during a routine check of a credit report, that someone had purchased over 100 gift cards—each worth $150—and had given them away to people whose names they didn't recognize. The hack occurred through a shopping app on a teenager's smartphone when an item was purchased through a store's Wi-Fi connection.

The ABCs of Cybersecurity

Educating family members about online risks is vital. Here are some basic first steps to better security.

Texting: Avoid texting private information, such as birth dates, Social Security numbers   and credit card information.

Wi-Fi: Matters regarding assets should only be conducted on a trusted private Internet   connection, never a public one. This means never when using mobile devices.

Social media: Avoid connecting with people you don't know on social networks. Social   media can give away a family's whereabouts or allow a hacker inside their personal lives.

The family contacted Tania Neild, a cybersecurity consultant, to analyze and diagnose what had happened. In the process they learned some key preventative measures. A Ph.D. in database integration who spent five years at the National Security Administration (NSA), Neild says family members usually have little idea about how much their daily online activities may be putting their assets at risk. This family in particular was victimized because they weren't following some of the basic guidelines of cybersecurity.

"We worked backward to find out what went wrong," says Neild. "Were they on a public Wi-Fi? Yes. Were they doing a transaction? Yes. Were they successfully processing the consequences? No." Neild said it was helpful to have the whole family in the room so they could work on the issue together. "This was a four-generation family," she says, noting that different family members had very different skill sets when it came to technology. "I had everyone from an infant to a great-grandfather in front of me, and although I had my work cut out for me, in the end, it was helpful to work as a team."


While cybercrime has increased by 38% in the last year,2 this doesn't mean families can't use email and social networks. Kids, especially, want to participate since so many of their friends are online. A recent independent study found that 24% of American teens are online "almost constantly" via smartphones and almost 75% of teens have smartphones.3

Building Stronger Passwords

They open your accounts, so make sure they are unique and strong.

The most important thing, of course, is that passwords should never be shared. But there's more to building a password than keeping it a secret. Brad Deflin, founder and president of Total Digital Security, suggests three key elements.

  • Length: Passwords should never consist of single or simple words. And an eight-character password is far less effective than a 14-character one. Deflin notes that a 10-character password would take more than 18 months to crack.
  • Complexity: One option is to create passwords by using the first letter of each word of a line from a favorite song. Another option, according to some experts, is interspersing passwords with numbers or special characters (e.g.,"@" or "&"). If you think the password is complicated, you're headed in the right direction.
  • Unpredictability: Any word that comes from the dictionary is a gamble, so if you use them make sure they are in a random string, interspersed with other characters.

Putting it all together
Start your thinking by using something longer that's easy to remember. "Mary had a little lamb," for example, could be a starting point. By making just a slight alteration, you can make the password even stronger, but no less difficult to commit to memory: "Mary had a big horse" is still easy to remember but unpredictable. From there, you might add characters and cases and end up with ">aryHAD@bigHorsE."

Over 100,000 breaches in cybersecurity occur every day, and there's more than one kind of cybercriminal.

Neild says rules are important, but the real key is balance. "I try to move everyone to the middle," she says. "If it gets too strict then it's not practical. But if it's too loose, you open yourself up to great risk." She begins with the basics:

  1. Access financial information only via a private Internet connection—never with a mobile device.

  2. Don't email private information like birth dates, Social Security numbers or credit card information.

  3. Avoid social media posts with personal information that could take a hacker inside a family's home or divulge their whereabouts on vacation.

  4. Establish passwords—the most common security breach—no one can guess or decode (see "Building Stronger Passwords," on page 2 for more).

Sometimes stating the obvious is necessary, Neild says, such as reminding kids that they should never share their passwords. Likewise, children need to understand the dangers of posting photos and personal information. "They need to recognize what is and isn't visible and act appropriately," she says. A large public donation, for example, could end up in local media for positive reasons, but that could lead cybercriminals to individual family members' work or social network accounts. From there, seemingly innocent public information can be used against a family. "It could be something benign, a post like 'Having fun in Cabo,'" she says. "But if someone recognizes your name because your family just donated $10 million to build a library, there you are in Mexico, where kidnapping is big."


Over 100,000 breaches in cybersecurity occur every day, says Neild. And there's more than one kind of cybercriminal. Just like in the real w orld, different people want different things, and have different tactics to try to get them.

A Protection Checklist for Your Devices

Make sure you consider these technologies when you're connecting to the Internet.

"We are just in the early innings of the Information Age," says Brad Deflin, founder and president of Total Digital Security. With the technology (and threats) constantly evolving, Deflin recommends four ways to protect your devices.

Antivirus software: The tool is about prevention, and only the best providers should be considered. Look for software that includes automatic updates and fast responses.

Intruder and rootkit protection: Assume intruders are always trying to connect to your devices and collect personal data. Sometimes they use rootkits, which are assemblies of software that enable access while masking their existence. Make sure your security professional shields your network.

Firewall: A firewall is security for your network, and you may want to have it set up by an expert. With today's threats, make sure you have your firewall activated even when you're offline.

Software updates: Keeping software updated is a very effective measure against hacking. Turn on the automatic updates to your software, and be sure to download the newest operating systems.

Some cybercriminals are outsiders, digging up information on a family via social networks or by accessing networks illegally. Others may have insider information about the family, or even be family acquaintances or on the family's payroll. Recognizing different kinds of cybercriminals is paramount to a family's security, as is taking precautions.

Watch Out for These Scams

Even if you've protected your computer and network, some scammers or companies will try to trick you into giving them money. Watch out for these top five scams.4

Obituary scam: After finding a widow on the Internet, scammers will pretend to be a collection agency calling about the recently deceased's debts.

Magazine subscription scam: Companies send a few issues out, and then call and attempt to confuse seniors by saying the final deadline for payment is that day.

Sweepstakes scam: Scammers will email and indicate that a shipping-and-handling fee is all that lies between you and a grand prize, but in reality (and in the fine print) the prize is worthless.

Charitable donations scam: Beware of requests for money immediately after a disaster. Scammers set up fake websites with names similar to real charities and solicit donations.

Investment scam: Scammers will set up seminars or websites where they suggest that investing in specific funds or unusual assets has made them rich.

The criminals behind these acts can be divided roughly into three categories:

Simply increasing the length of a password can help ensure a family's online safety.

  • Cybercriminals: They use the Internet with the intention of monetary gain. Their targets may include companies, individuals and their families. Criminals go after capital, but also target assets with monetary value, such as music accounts, gift certificates and frequent-flier miles.

  • Cyber spies: A growing number of cybercriminals steal information—such as passwords to music accounts or store credit, instead of capital—and sell it on the black cybermarket, an increasingly popular underground economy that is similar in function to the traditional black market.

  • Cyber activists: A group that seeks access to networks in order to disrupt them for political reasons, activists will often use hijacked accounts to hide their own identity as they breach an organization's security systems. Neild points to a recent email attack that affected 150 million users, including some of her clients whose accounts contained financial information. It was a wake-up call for all parties. "Nothing was stolen, because that wasn't the goal," she says, "but the cyber activists brought the network to its knees."


As the threat of cybercrime grows, so does the need to protect family assets. How is this done? Some suggest working with a web master to establish a family domain—a secure site accessible by a small number of approved family members, each with their own domain email (e.g., While this is often fairly simple to set up, it can mean granting another individual or company access to any emails sent from the domain.

Shop Smart

When buying on the web, keep your guard up with these simple tactics.

Find the "s": Websites that begin with https (as opposed to just http) have a layer of encryption called the secure sockets layer, or SSL. Never enter your card information into a site without the s.

Credit trumps debit: Your credit card generally has more built-in protection than your debit card. Either way, remember to always check your statements against your purchases.

Avoid the unknown: If a small website is offering a deal that's too good to be true, it might be. Stick with brand-name sites and familiar e-commerce sites when possible.

Neild suggests having a trusted technology (tech) expert help set up secure email and build a private server— or firewall. This server should be used when handling family assets, instead of public servers or Wi-Fi devices. The server design should include a desktop accessible to authorized family members with unshared passwords. The desktop should not have wireless capabilities, and should be hardwired via ethernet to the server. The firewall should be checked and reinforced in regular monthly installments, or at least once every quarter.

Neild says it's also essential to choose the right tech expert, and that the person designing the system should be evaluated the way one would a mechanic. "References, references, references," she says. "You want someone to be focused and very rigorous when setting this up."

While complexity often plays an important role, simply increasing the length of a password can also help ensure a family's online safety, according to Brad Deflin, founder and president of Total Digital Security. "Length is everything," he says. "Certain hacking software can sometimes crack an eight character password in less than a day, while a 10-character password could take a year and a half to crack using the same software."


Despite all the precautions you can take, hackers still get around the cybersecurity that's in place and breaches do occur, reiterates Neild.

This, too, is something for which every family should prepare. Victims of cyber theft, like burglary, often feel violated and don't know what to do next. A good start is remembering these three steps:

  1. Don't disturb any evidence. As with any other crime scene, cybercrimes leave a trail. Don't disturb anything, and let the investigators take it from there.
  2. Contact the place from which the property was stolen, be it from a bank, credit card company or retail store with a shopping app.
  3. Alert your family's financial and legal advisors.

Family assets may be insured, but once trust is violated, it's not easily rebuilt. Even after a security breach during which nothing was stolen, families may feel like they've been robbed. Taking these three actions can help you get back on the path towards peace of mind.

Cybercrime is a fact of modern life, and it's only becoming worse. While the benefits of instant online access are many, so are the perils. But with thorough preparation and a good understanding of the online world, all members of families should be able to enjoy the benefits of the Internet today and look forward to a safe and secure tomorrow.

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