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How to protect yourself against cyberthreats

Hackers can attack from many different fronts. Here are some tips to give you a fighting chance.

Imagine this: A city's entire computer system gets mysteriously shut down. ATMs stop working. Internet sites go offline. No, this is not the premise to a dystopian novel. It's what can happen when cybercriminals attack our networks.

Tom Fanning is the sole private citizen on the government's Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a group formed by the U.S. Congress to bring the private and public sector together in the fight against cyberattacks. A well-respected thought leader on issues related to cybersecurity, his role is to bring a practical, front-line perspective to the committee – including testing the capabilities of critical infrastructure like power grids, financial markets and telecommunications networks.

"Cyberthreats are in our networks all the time. People don't see them until something bad happens," said Fanning, the Chairman, President and CEO of Southern Company, one of the largest utilities in the United States. "You should think about armies of people in nondescript buildings in Beijing, China and elsewhere pounding away on keyboards trying to get in – through impairing our telecommunications networks, our electricity grid, our financial system – the very core of the American economy."

Governments and companies aren't the only ones who need to be worried about cyberthreats. Each and everyone of us can be attacked by hackers just as easily. Here are a few tips to keep yourself safe.


Be careful what you click on: It may start off with something small. You receive an unassuming email in your inbox. It looks legitimate, perhaps even from a company you currently do business with – your bank, your internet service provider, an online shopping site you visited. But take another look. Does something look fishy? Check the sender's email. Oftentimes, scammers create emails that look similar to legitimate sources, but are slightly different. If you do click on a link, make sure the domain is one you recognize.


Create smart passwords: Creating passwords like "0000" or "1234" have long been parodied on TV and in the movies. In real life, you should be much more thoughtful with your passwords. Make sure they are not easy to crack. "YourName1234" is generally not the best idea. And steer clear of using the same password for all your logins. Take advantage of easy-to-use password manager software which allows you to easily store and recall unique passwords for every online account you have.


Don't open every attachment: Never open attachments from people you don't know. That's the easy part. The tricky part is if your friend or colleague was hacked, you might receive an attachment from them that looks authentic. But take a closer look. Does the email seem vague or not in the usual style that you and your friend communicate? Check with them in real life before opening the attachment. The cardinal rule is: if something looks off, double check before opening it.


Keep your Wi-Fi secure: People often set up their Wi-Fi network – or have a cable installer do it – and then never think about it again. But one thing you should make sure you've done is set up a password. If not, you may discover that your neighbors who live in the same apartment building as you are tapping into you Wi-Fi. In theory, that could give them access to your computer and everything that's on it. Set up a password the day you have your Wi-Fi installed and you shouldn't have to worry about it again.