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The start of a new year is the perfect time to rehabilitate bad habits. While some choose exercise or learning a second language, it’s also an opportunity to make some changes to how you interface with your personal tech.
Despite near-constant reminders of the importance of good passwords, checking our credit card statements, and avoiding phishing attempts, it’s easy to get lazy about our internet habits. That’s why now is a great time to set yourself up on the path to success.
Here are five easy steps you can take to have a better, safer online life in 2020.
1. Get a password manager
Maintaining strong, unique passwords is the “flossing your teeth” of internet life: absolutely essentially and yet widely ignored.
Sometimes my own family members tell me that they don’t need to worry. “Who would hack me?” they ask, as if victims are personally staked out rather than harvested millions at a time.
5 easy New Year’s tech resolutions (Photo: Getty / GCShutter)
So let’s explain one more time. The reason you need passwords that are both strong and unique is simple. When a major hacking occurs, the stolen information is frequently sold on the dark web to other hackers, who, in turn, try to use the data to hack accounts on other sites.
For example, if a hacker knows that “[email protected]” used the password “abc123” on the first hacked site, they can put that information into a script that will try those credentials on 10,000 other popular sites, like banks, medical records websites, and other retailers. If “Joe” used the same credentials for multiple sites, he’s in trouble.
Don’t be Joe. Use a password manager like LastPass, which can create a unique password for every site you log into – you’ll only ever need to remember one master password. All your individual passwords are stored securely in the cloud and cannot be unencrypted, even by LastPass. It’s cheap, too, with plans ranging from free to $3 to $4 per month.
2. Consider a VPN
If a car pulled up on the street with the word “police” written in crayon on the side, would you get in? Of course not, and yet plenty of people connect to “Starbucks Free WiFi” without any idea of who’s actually managing the network, watching all of your online activity and waiting for you to reveal valuable personal data.
A virtual private network (VPN) is the ideal protection against intruders, while still allowing you to hop on free Wi-Fi networks when you really need to. A VPN creates a sort of shell that allows you to keep your identity protected not just from Wi-Fi networks but also from the websites you visit.
VPNs are crucial tools for journalists and political dissenters working under oppressive governments. For regular folks, they’re just an additional layer of privacy that only truly essential when using public Wi-Fi.
NordVPN or ExpressVPN are two popular and trusted choices, and trust is paramount because you have to take the VPN companies at their word when they say they’re not monitoring your web traffic.
Apps that have access to your email inbox need to be very clear about what they’re doing with your data. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
3. Clean out your inbox
“Zero inbox,” or having no unread emails, is considered by some to be akin to achieving a state of internet nirvana. It’s something I strive for personally, but I try not to obsess over it. Depending on your rate of correspondence, maintaining a zero inbox may be an unnecessary distraction.
Rather, the New Year might simply be a good time to unsubscribe from all that junk mail you receive. In accordance with CAN-SPAM legislation, it’s required by U.S. law that commercial email (e.g. newsletters and marketing material) “must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt-out of getting email” from the company in the future. So look for an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email. If you have Gmail, use the spam filter.
If you want to go one step further, the FTC has recommendations that will scale back email, snail-mail, and spam phone calls.
4. Refresh, don’t replace, old electronics
If your laptop, tablet, or smartphone is getting old, try a little rehab before condemning it to the trash pile. With a few simple steps, it’s easy to put some pep back in a computer.
A phone or tablet can be sped up simply by removing unused apps, removing old photos and other data, and turning it off and on more frequently than you used to. Additional steps for iOS and Android devices will net you even faster performance.
Your 2020 checklist: 6 steps to a safer digital life
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5. Stop overpaying
If it’s been a while since you took a close look at the monthly statements from your cable provider, internet service, or phone carrier, it’s time.
Cable companies routinely lower their rates if you threaten to leave. Or perhaps it shouldn’t be a mere threat. If you want to cut the cord, just add up the total cost of what you’d be paying Netflix, Disney+, and other services. If it’s less than your cable bill, it may be time.
Check your mobile phone bill for unnecessary add-ons like insurance, and call the carrier to try negotiate a lower price. You might also save a few dollars by switching to paperless billing or autopay.
David Kender is the editor-in-chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at [email protected]
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