The Offices of the United States Attorneys characterizes cybercrime as one of the greatest threats facing our country, with serious implications for national security, economic prosperity and public safety.1 As just one example, a 2016 study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that $15 billion was stolen from 13.1 million U.S. consumers in just 2015.2  The problem is even worse among the wealthiest Americans. A recent study by the Experian credit rating agency concluded that individuals in the most affluent demographic category are 22% more likely to fall prey to identity fraud than the average credit applicant.3  This is largely because they tend to have more accounts, larger credit lines and more people handling their personal information. That creates a greater incentive and more points of vulnerability.

Fortunately, the risk of cybercrime can be greatly mitigated by taking reasonable precautions and getting appropriate help when you need it. In this article, we will offer some tips that you can use to reduce some obvious risks, and some ways to improve your technological front in an increasingly digital age. Our goal is to make some simple, security-enhancing adjustments that provide a true, reality-based sense of security.

Staying one step ahead

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke: Two campers are sitting around a fire, when a bear comes out of the woods. One of them jumps up and starts to run. The other shouts, “Stand still, you’ll never outrun a bear!” The other calls back, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I have to outrun you.” Personal Security works on very much the same principle. It’s virtually impossible to make yourself perfectly safe, 100% of the time, from every conceivable threat. It’s reasonably simple to make yourself relatively less vulnerable than other potential victims and, therefore, less attractive as a potential target. Most crimes, including cybercrimes, are crimes of opportunity. Reduce the easiest opportunities, and you will reduce the appearance of being an easy target.

Cyber security is a family endeavor

While financial cybercrime may be more common, attacks that threaten the safety of your family should always be your first concern. Cybersecurity expert, Ken Citarella, suggests that the most important first step in family cybersecurity is for parents to know which devices and social media their children use and how they use them. It’s important to talk to your children about online privacy and information security. Neglecting to do so can be can be tantamount to trusting your family security to the consistently good judgment of pre-teens, tweens and teenagers. Unrestricted, and particularly unmonitored, internet access is a virtual open front door to your home. With minimal effort, potential criminals may be able to learn about your upcoming vacations, your kids’ school and after-school schedules, the gifts you give your family and a virtually limitless amount of other nefariously useful information.

You and your children should be cautious when opening or downloading content, and only do so from sources you know and trust.  Sites that claim to share media content, like movies and music, often contain hidden viruses that can infect your home computer. It’s also important for children to understand how sharing, or particularly over-sharing, on social media platforms could be harmful to your family and to their own reputation. Don’t be afraid to “friend” your child so you can see what they are doing online, and restrict access to social media when you see inappropriate behavior.

Best practices at work and home

At a recent Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management conference, cybersecurity expert Ben FitzGerald discussed the importance of taking a risk-based approach to cyberthreats at home and in your professional life. Identify which incursions prevent a serious threat to your family or business and focus on those. Fitzgerald suggested that behavioral solutions are at least as important as technological safeguards in the prevention of cyber crime. “The greatest risks to most enterprises are not the sophisticated sentient adversary out there in the world who's targeting your crown jewels. It’s your own insiders.  And some of them could be malicious, but most of them are just unwitting.” So, the best first step in defense is educating yourself, your family and employees and staying vigilant in maintaining proper protocols.  

FitzGerald suggests three quick, easy and inexpensive measures you can take to reduce the risk of a breech:

  1. Sign up for two-factor authentication and use it everywhere you can. You log in and a code is texted to your phone. You then need to enter the code in addition to your password. 

  2. Buy a screen to put over your laptop to use on a plane or other public spot so that people behind you or off to the side can't see what you're doing.

  3. Put a little piece of a yellow sticky pad over the camera on any mobile device, which are notoriously easy to hack.

In addressing cybersecurity issues, as well as all safety issues, it’s important to maintain a sense of balance. A security plan that leads to constant stress and worry is, by definition, a failure. There is no such thing as a world without risk.

The cybersecurity experts (Ken Citarella and Ben FitzGerald) are not affiliated with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC.