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Hackers used loopholes in the security at Amazon and Apple to obtain personal information about a Wired writer, who says his entire digital life was "destroyed." Experts say to ward off hackers, pick good passwords and get rid of unused accounts. (iStockphoto.com)

5 Ways To Avoid Being Hacked

Aug 9, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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Hacking. We often think of it happening to companies or governments. But it also happens to ordinary people. Mat Honan is a technology writer for Wired magazine whose computer and Internet accounts were hacked.

"I lost a year and a half of pictures of my daughter, pictures of her with her great-grandparents who are now deceased. You know, wonderful precious memories that I'm hoping to get back," Honan told NPR's Morning Edition. The hackers used loopholes in the security at Amazon and Apple to obtain personal information about Honan. Both companies say they are addressing security problems.

Some of what happened to Honan was avoidable. What's scary about his situation is that almost all of us are vulnerable. But we can take steps to stop it.

Step 1: Tough passwords

You need to have a separate password for each account, so that if one account gets hacked, all of your vital information is not vulnerable. The problem is that it's tough to remember dozens of passwords. The answer: a password manager. There are a variety of third-party software programs that will create and store passwords for you.

"It's just ridiculous that people are still creating their own passwords," says Lance Ulanoff, chief editor at Mashable.com. This is the first and simplest thing you can do. Ulanoff says it also takes away the anxiety that comes along with password management.

Step 2: Two-Part Authentication

When you log on to many different computers — especially shared computers — to access your email account, you are especially vulnerable to hackers.

Many websites are moving toward two-step verification. Google is one. Essentially, it means that you need more than a password to log into a new account. If you use the service, you have to remember a password but also remember a special key that gets sent to you as a text.

Step 3: Change Your Behavior

"I hate to say it, but the reality is they need to share a little bit less," says Ulanoff.

Ulanoff says we probably don't want to go back to the pre-social media days, but oversharing may not be just embarrassing, it may cause harm. Things like birth dates and graduation years can be used to access your information. That doesn't mean you need to shut down your online presence, but be careful what details you put out there.

Step 4: Consolidation

Remember Friendster? Or MySpace? Whitson Gordon, senior editor of Lifehacker.com, says that back in the early days of the Internet, it would have been hard to imagine "10, 20 years down the road when we would have so many services we're grappling with."

So sit down and think about the last 10 years of your online life. And then delete the accounts for the services you signed up for and no longer use.

Step 5: Back It Up

"If there's one thing I have to hammer home with everybody, it's back up your data," Gordon says. You can either use an external hard drive or an online service. As more of the things we care about get stored electronically, the more vulnerable they are to get lost. If your smartphone gets stolen with wedding photos on it, there won't be as much heartbreak.

Doing all of this takes time, energy and money. But being hacked can be the gateway to identity theft or worse.

Both Gordon and Ulanoff say it's worth the effort for the security.

For other tips on protecting yourself online, you can visit a special FBI website.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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