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How Can You Make Your Data Safe?

November 30 2017

When data was breached at Equifax, one of the largest credit agencies in the world, the personal data of 145.5 million U.S. consumers was stolen. The information included full names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, and even driver license numbers. Cyber-security breaches are on the rise.

The real estate industry is particularly vulnerable to data theft. It's due to both the nature of our business and the fact that we have more than 1 million independent contractors. Because real estate involves bank transfers – earnest money deposits and the wiring of closing funds - cyber-criminals see the business as an attractive target. Having an independent workforce means there are no universal security standards. There are no security protocols in place that all agents must follow. And agents use a wide range of disparate technologies for database storage services and practices, with some more secure than others.

So what can you do, as an agent or broker, to keep your data safe? Here are some basic "best practices" that can help protect both your personal information and your business data.

1. Malware prevention is a must. Make sure you always have an antivirus program running. Also keeping it automatically updated is now an imperative. Malicious malware is becoming pervasive. It is plaguing many computers, often lurking in the background, unknown to the user. Malware includes viruses, trojan horses, worms, spyware, and more. Today your computer can get infected simply by visiting a website, opening a photo, or clicking on a file to download from an email. You can wreak havoc on your computer by installing a freeware or shareware program. That's why your antivirus program is your computer's best friend.

2. Back up your data daily. This may sound like a pain, but a daily backup can save you. It's easier than ever. Nearly every portable hard drive comes bundled with an auto backup program. It's built into many computers, including Apple Macs. And smart software is designed to just back up your most recent changes. So once you've made your first backup, future backups are much faster.

3. Secure storage. In real estate, it's worth paying the small fee for Form Simplicity Ultimate Edition, Dropbox or a Box account to make sure your data – and your client's data - stored in the cloud is fully secured. Services like Form Simplicity, Dropbox and Box use the same level of encryption that banks use. And it's easy for your clients to add their files, securely, to the folders you set up for them.

4. Encrypt your data. You can always add an additional layer of protection and encrypt (password protect) the files you store in the cloud, on your computer and via email. There are many third party software solutions, and some programs have encryption built in, such as Adobe Reader and Acrobat. Either will let you password protect every PDF you create. For email, there are simple plugins that you can add that will encrypt your email, like Gmail. Your recipient can read by using the same plugin and opening with the password.

5. Be careful using public Wi-Fi. The smartest thing to do when using public Wi-Fi is to avoid working with sensitive data. That's because a hacker can potentially get into your computer and access your data when you use an open Wi-Fi network. Save your online banking activities for when you get back home. Be sure to turn off file sharing, and if you have a Mac, shut off Air Drop. Security experts suggest turning off Wi-Fi when you aren't using it. And the safest bet: bring your own Wi-Fi. Tethering to your smartphone gives you a secure Internet connection and is far safer than using any open public Wi-Fi.

6. Use Two-Factor Authentication. When you are setting up your new smartphone, it's easy to bypass using a password to access your phone for convenience, but don't. In fact, you should also accept the new prompt for two-factor authentication for your phone (and your computer, if it is available). It's simply an extra layer of security. It requires both a password and username along with a code sent to another device that a user has on them. It will prompt the user for information they have immediately at hand. It then sends a code as a text to be entered for final verification. That extra layer of protection can help you sleep soundly.

7. Destroy old hard drives. Don't forget to destroy the personal data that you left on an old computer. There are software programs that can wipe the data clean. But the cheapest way is to remove the hard drive from the computer, and then simply drill a hole through it.

8. Turn off your computer. Another recommendation from security experts is that when you are done for the day, turn your computer completely off. When you leave your computer on and connected to the Internet, it is left open to rogue attacks. Turning it off also prevents any sleeping malware from waking up. The last thing you want is a hacker using your computer afterhours for such nefarious things as a denial-of-service attack.

The principal rule when it comes to keeping your data safe is staying up-to-date. Make sure your operating system and programs have the most recent versions running. Keep your anti-virus program in auto-update mode. Stay apprised of new threats and scams so you are aware of what to avoid. And back up your data every day.

If you adhere to these best practices, you'll be way ahead of most of your peers and be well prepared if you are subject to a data breach.

Tricia Stamper is Director of Technology at Florida Realtors® and manages both Tech Helpline and Form Simplicity.