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Best way to protect yourself from hackers, scammers and snoops

Best way to protect yourself from hackers, scammers and snoops
photo courtesy of shutterstock

It's scary when you realize the only thing protecting your sensitive online accounts and information from hackers and snoops is one password. Sure, you can make a strong, unbreakable password.

Passwords can be so hard to remember unless you use a powerful and safe password manager and form filler.

Maybe hackers get your password from a data breach at a major company. No matter how it happens, the bottom line is that you really need more security for your sensitive accounts. Fortunately, many accounts have extra security available, if you know where to look.

I'm talking about two-factor authentication, also called two-step verification. Don't let the fancy name throw you, it just means that to log in to your account you need two ways to prove you are who you say you are. It's like the bank or DMV asking for two forms of ID.

The idea is that a hacker is going to have a much harder time getting both forms of ID, and it's true. Most major services and companies, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, offer two-factor authentication now, and I'm going to tell you what you'll need to make it work and how to turn it on for your accounts.

What you'll need

When it comes to using two-factor authentication (I'm shortening it to 2FA for the rest of this article) both "factors" or "steps" can't be passwords you created. Otherwise it would be too easy for hackers to trick you into giving them.

In most cases, one of the "factors" is a randomly generated code sent to your cellphone. If a hacker steals your password and tries to log in to your account on an unknown computer, the site will ask them for the second code. Unless they also stole your phone, and were able to unlock it, they won't be able to get the second code to log in.

Using 2FA is a bit more effort at first, but it gets easier fast and the security benefits are huge. Plus, you can set up "safe" computers and gadgets, such as your home computer or tablet, where you don't have to go through the whole sign-in process every time. Just make sure our computer has its own login password to keep snoops away.

Now that you know how 2FA works, let's look at how to turn it on for the major services you probably use. I haven't included individual banks because there are so many and each one offers something different. Check your bank account's settings or speak to customer service to see if it's an available option for you.

Amazon

It took a while, but Amazon finally added two-factor authentication to its accounts, so you have another option to keep your credit card and shopping history safe. Of course, you still have to turn it on.

Go to Amazon and click on "Your Account" in the upper right area.

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In the Settings area, click "Change Account Settings." It might ask you to enter your login information again.

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Then next to "Advanced Security Settings," click the "Edit" button.

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Then click the "Get Started" button and Amazon will walk you through setting up the two-factor system.

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When you're done, your account will be much safer. Just note that if you stay logged in to Amazon on your computer, anyone who gets on your computer will still have access to your account.

Facebook

Open Facebook in your browser. Click the downward triangle in the upper right corner and select Settings. Then click Security in the left column to go to the Security Settings screen.

In the right column click "Login Approvals" and then click the checkbox for "Require a security code to access my account from unknown browsers." Follow the directions to add your cellphone number to your account. Whenever you want to use Facebook on a new computer or browser, you'll receive a text with the code that you need to enter.

You can manage what browsers are "known" and "unknown" in the "Your Browsers and Apps" area on the Security Settings screen. If your phone or computer is lost or stolen, go in to this section and remove that gadget's browser(s) from the list. That means whoever has your gadget won't be able to get into your account.

Facebook can also email you whenever an unfamiliar browser tries to access your account. This is a good way to learn if someone is trying to access your account without your permission. To get this feature, go back to the Security Settings screen turn on "Login Notifications."

Google

Log into your Google account at https://myaccount.google.com/ and then scroll down to the "Signing in" section. Click "2-Step Verification" and then click "Start setup" and follow the steps to add your phone number.

Google will send you a verification code to ensure that you actually own the phone. Enter the code into the site and you're done.

Any time you log in to Google on an unfamiliar browser or computer, you'll need to enter a code. You can choose to get future codes by phone call, text or using Google's Authenticator app.

Like Facebook, you can also get notifications when someone suspicious tries to access your account. In the Google Account Settings screen, scroll down to "Recent activity" and click "Notifications & alerts settings."

You can choose what triggers a notification and where Google sends it. At the very least, turn on "Suspicious attempt to access account."

Bonus hint: If you sell or give away your smartphone or tablet, make sure you go to Account Settings>>Recent activity and click Devices. Find the gadget you no longer own, select it and click the big red "Remove" button to make sure it can't connect to your Google account in the future.

Microsoft

When you created your Microsoft account for Windows 8, Skype, Hotmail/Live/Outlook or some versions of Office, if you added a phone number or alternative email address Microsoft has already turned on 2FA by default.

To double-check, or to set up 2FA, go to your Microsoft account at https://account.live.com. Then under Security & Privacy" click "Advanced Security Settings." It should ask you to prove your identity by entering a security code sent to your phone or alternative email address.

If it doesn't, you'll need to go to the "Two-step verification" section and click "Set up two-step verification." Microsoft will walk you through setting up your phone or email to get security codes. It will also tell you how to get an authenticator app for your smartphone, set up a recovery code to take back your account if hackers do get in, and create secure app codes for Microsoft gadgets that pre-date 2FA, such as the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 8.

Even if you already have 2FA turned on, clicking "Set up two-step verification" is a good way to make sure every option you want is enabled. You can also do this manually for individual security features if you scroll down the page past the "Two-step verification" section.

At the end of the page, you can also reset your trusted devices. These are the browsers and gadgets where you've told Microsoft not to bug you with security codes. If you've had a gadget stolen or you accidentally told Microsoft not to bug you on a public computer, resetting your trusted devices is a good idea.

On the account page under "Security & Privacy" you can also click the "Check Recent Activity" link to see what gadgets and browsers are using or trying to access your account.

Apple

Go to your Apple ID page, click Manage Your Apple ID and then sign in. Choose Password and Security. Select "Get Started" in the Two-Step Verification menu. Apple will walk you through the setup process.

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