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7 Tips to protect your 
identity online

Personal information is just as precious as any tangible property you may own.

When engaging in online activities, one cannot ignore the inherent risks involved. Whether you’re accessing information, interacting with a company or buying a product or service, your data is being stored and then possibly shared with others. If it gets into the wrong hands, your data can easily be exploited by cybercriminals for anything from identity theft to stealing funds from your bank account.

According to a survey conducted by KPMG in 2021, 86% of 2000 consumers expressed growing concerns about data privacy, while 68% were concerned about the extent of data being collected by businesses. Similarly,  another KPMG survey of 250 business leaders in the same year revealed that a majority of them acknowledged an increase in the collection of consumer personal data within their companies over the past year. 62% said they believed that their organisation should be doing more to strengthen existing data protection measures.

Vic Esterhuizen, a senior manager at leading South African credit bureau XDS, says that protecting your identity online is crucial in the current digital era.

“It’s important to keep in mind that your personal information is just as precious as any tangible property you may own,” he says. “Taking proactive measures to protect your online identity is not only advised; it is also required.”

So what should these proactive measures be to protect yourself online? Here are seven ways you can limit the exposure of your information so that you can deter – and hopefully prevent –cybercriminals from accessing it.

1. Deactivate or delete old email or social media accounts:

Even though you may not access that old email address or social media account anymore, your financial or personal information may still be stored within it. If there’s a security breach on one of those sites, your information could be accessed and used against you. For peace of mind, rather deactivate or delete any old accounts you no longer use by going into the account settings and looking for a deactivation or closure option.

2. Regularly review your privacy settings

Privacy and security settings change frequently depending on the platform you’re using. For example, Facebook and Instagram regularly update their platforms with new functionality which can mean new avenues for exploitation. Make sure you’re not giving strangers access to your private information by reviewing your privacy settings on a regular basis and making any necessary adjustments.

3. Disable location tracking

The ability to receive location-based suggestions when you search for local companies is convenient, but this in-built GPS functionality means your whereabouts can be tracked whenever you have your phone with you. Be aware of the apps and services that have access to your location and that this is only enabled when you’re using the service.

4. Update your software regularly

It’s important to maintain the most recent versions of your operating system, web browser, and other software: software updates frequently come with security patches that fix flaws and guard against well-known exploits. Make sure you have the most recent security patches by enabling automatic updates – or by frequently checking for updates manually.

5. Know the company you’re dealing with

As in the offline world, any company you deal with online and with whom you share your data should be reputable and trustworthy. Vic says it’s important to do your due diligence if you’re concerned. “Read privacy declarations, use secure platforms, and make sure that the company in question is transparent about how they control your data and that they take data protection seriously,” he says. This includes aspects like complying with industry data protection standards and adhering to comprehensive security protocols before committing your data to the company in question.

6. Unsubscribe from mailing lists

How many mailing lists are you subscribed to? 10? 20? More? These days, it’s the norm for sites you interact with – whether you’re reading its content or buying its products – to ask you to subscribe to their mailing list. As these lists accumulate over time, the chances that your data can be exposed to criminals increases. Start by unsubscribing from the mailing lists you’re no longer interested in to help you lessen your digital footprint and limit the amount of people who have access to your personal information.

7. Use two-factor authentication

These days, many sites and apps are adopting two-factor authentication for increased security. Enabling this adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second verification step (usually through a text message, email or authenticator app) in addition to your password. You could even be asked to use facial recognition if your mobile device caters for this function. Overall, two-factor authentication makes it significantly harder for cybercriminals to gain access to your accounts even if they do have your password.

The internet has become an integral part of our daily lives – whether we’re using it for banking, shopping, working or socialising. In the process, our personal information is being shared with an ever-increasing number of companies, some of which may have questionable ethics when it comes to the security and sharing of this data. At the same time, cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, and their crimes have serious consequences on the lives of everyday people. But your online identity is a valuable asset that deserves protection. “Just as you lock your doors at home, you must take steps to secure your digital presence,” says Vic. “By practising strong passwords, being cautious with sharing personal information, and staying updated on privacy settings, you can fortify your online identity and enjoy a safer and more secure digital life.”

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