If you’re like me and think that you have a force field protecting you from hackers and spam—think again. As part of the Millennial generation, using technology comes naturally, but I’m still not a human firewall. Just because you are proficient at using the internet doesn’t mean you don’t have to take safety precautions.

This month marks the ninth annual National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM), and the timing couldn’t be better. Around this time last year, 26% of Americans admitted to “sharing more information on social networks” at that time than one year prior, and over 1 million adults become cybercrime victims every day.

I am a prime example of a digital citizen. My job starts and ends on the internet.  I use the web to complete daily tasks and stay up on the latest Apple gossip. It is important for me to consider cyber security and privacy every time I download a new app on my iPhone, post something to Twitter or Facebook from my iPad, or allow a third-party application to access my information. If I ignore cyber threats, I leave myself vulnerable to hackers, stalkers, phishing emails, spyware, identity fraud—the list could go on and on.

Even big companies can be hit with cyber-attacks. Recently, Gizmodo’s twitter account was hacked. Another group of hackers claimed they stole personal identification data on millions of Apple device owners from an FBI agent’s laptop. These things can and will happen if you don’t take actions now. Here are some tips to help you evaluate and ramp up your cyber security efforts.

Protect Your Passwords

You’ve heard it before, but it’s still true: When online, your first line of defense is your password. StaySafeOnline.org, powered by NCSA, draws an apt analogy between passwords and house keys. Consider the time you spend online your virtual “home,” and secure your space accordingly. The concept may feel like an abstraction, but the threats to your security are anything but.

Evaluate all of your passwords to insure they meet the following criteria:

  • At least eight characters, including symbols and upper- and lowercase letters if allowed
  • Unique to you (i.e., not easily guessed) and each of your accounts
  • Written down and stored away from your computer
  • Impossible to locate in a dictionary of any language
  • Do not reference personal information, such as your date of birth or social security number
  • Do not contain common misspellings or repeated characters, words, or numbers

Secure Your Answers

If passwords are your first line of defense, security questions are a strong second. Don’t let the fact that many of those questions are similar from site to site (the name of your first pet, anyone?) dictate the originality of your answers. Most accounts offer users a choice of security questions, and you should always choose those to which even your close friends would not know—or be able to guess—the answer.

Strengthen Your Settings

Every legitimate social networking site, from Twitter to Tumblr, Pinterest to LinkedIn, has a unique privacy policy and security system. As a user, it is your right and your responsibility to get educated about each site you use and take the following steps to stay safe:

  • Never assume that a site’s default security and privacy settings are safe—many make your profile data and pic available to the online public.
  • Read the privacy policy on each site you use carefully and customize your security settings immediately.
  • Routinely check for policy and setting updates.
  • Avoid public questionnaires.
  • Reconsider geo-location apps that reveal your physical location.
  •  Never forget that posting any personal information online is inherently risky: if you wouldn’t wear it on a T-shirt, don’t share it online.

Be Less Friendly

Take a look right now at the social media site you use most often: do you really even want that many friends? Unless you’re forging a public identity, consider unfriending anyone whose name doesn’t recall a face. The Internet provides a sense of anonymity that hackers, stalkers, and other criminals regularly exploit, and it’s up to the rest of us to remember that no one we wouldn’t want in our physical residence belongs in our virtual home, either.

Remain skeptical of strange people, posts, pages, and information; the absence of physical interaction in the virtual domain can lull even the most vigilant user into complacency, which is exactly what criminals bank on.

When using social media or simply browsing online, avoid third-party applications and never click on a short link that does not clearly display the full target location. If you know the person who sent the link and can’t resist the urge to open it then test it at SiteAdvisor.com first.  Because of social media platforms like Twitter, which limit the amount of characters in a post, shortened links have become increasingly popular. Here is a trick I do before opening shortened links (NOTE: This doesn’t work for all shortened links):

Step 1: Copy (not click) the short link.

Step 2: Paste the short link into your web browser.

Step 3: Add a (+) to the end of the link.

Step 4: This will show you the actual URL along with statistics.

Be particularly wary of shared videos that require player “upgrades” and links claiming to reveal who’s been viewing your profile; both are common criminal tactics. Remember, your personal safety, and that of the entire digital community, could be at stake.

Ryan Sauer is a search engine marketer, technology enthusiast, and self-proclaimed connect four sensei. He is a Social Media Award Winner for the 2012 Google Online Marketing Challenge. You can follow him on Twitter @rlcsauer

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