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Keep safe from hackers, identity theft

Keep safe from hackers, identity theft

High-tech threats are everywhere, from data breaches at retail stores to the most recent Internet virus that's dominating the nightly news.

But a little knowledge and common sense can go a long way toward helping protect you from identity theft and financial loss.

"Today's consumer needs to be more vigilant than ever, all the time," says Tom Shaw, USAA's vice president of financial crimes management. The most effective defense is understanding the risks you face when using your computer, smartphone or tablet.

Check out the tips below to learn how you can be better armed against online crooks.

Phishing. An email that appears to be from your financial institution or another business you deal with asks you to click a link that directs you to a web page that looks legitimate. On this web page, you may be asked to verify personal information such as your account number, password or Social Security number. The email may include an attachment, which it urges you to open.Don't bite. It's a scam to snatch your personal data. Reputable companies never gather information this way.

Vishing. Think of this as phishing over the phone — the "v" is for voice. Instead of sending a bogus email, the criminals call you, claiming to be from your bank or another institution you trust, such as the local court system calling about jury duty.

Even if an email or phone call appears to be legitimate, be suspicious. If they ask for a Social Security number or other personal information, think twice. Hang up and call the organization's customer service number to double-check.

Smishing. This variant of the phishing concept uses text messages to lure you into clicking links that provide your personal information or download infected apps on your phone.

Don't respond to text messages or automated voice messages from unknown or blocked numbers on your mobile phone.

Internet safety. Pop-up ads are especially bad since clicking on them could trigger your computer to download a nasty virus or spyware — software that gathers personally identifiable information, including email addresses and passwords, from your computer without your knowledge. The same goes for attachments or links that come in unsolicited emails or in unsolicited Facebook, Twitter or other social networking messages.

Once a malicious code is on your machine, it can hijack your computer's operating system, send spam and malware to other computers, launch unrelenting pop-up ads, or even record your keystrokes and report back to its controller.

Defend your computer with anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-spyware and pop-up blocker programs. Also consider researching alternative browsers that utilize additional security features. Remember, when you're in unfamiliar territory on the Internet, trust no one.

Laptop/phone/tablet theft. It may sound old-fashioned and boring, but theft of devices remains the most common computer crime because it requires zero know-how to pull off. Tablets are increasingly popular as they are easily resold on the black market.

To help protect yourself, use a laptop cable lock whenever possible and keep important gear out of sight unless you're using it. Store briefcases in your trunk, not the passenger seat of your car, and make sure you use strong passwords and encryption (if available) on all your devices in case they fall into the wrong hands.