Login Lockdown: Six Account Protection Tips for National Cyber Security Awareness Month

Since October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM), it’s an ideal time to consider how you sign in to your accounts. It may seem simple and obvious, but account protection is one of the most direct and effective ways to protect your sensitive data.

Six Basic Account Protection Best Practices

It’s easy for security leaders to overlook some of the basics, especially when managing huge volumes of everyday users. The Lock Down Your Login campaign promotes simple steps that users can take on their own to protect accounts from attackers.

1. Use Strong Authentication

The first step is to employ multifactor authentication (MFA), which provides another layer of protection in addition to username and password. The idea is to make the login gauntlet more difficult for an automated process to crack if it obtains a username and password as a result of a breach. MFA solutions typically use an external hardware dongle, biometric sensor or one-time password to facilitate this extra layer of verification. According to the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), however, SMS-based authentication is vulnerable to social engineering.

2. Vigilantly Patch Software

The second step is to keep all software updated. Threat actors generally use known software vulnerabilities to launch their attacks. Developers patch their software to eliminate these problems, but these fixes are useless if users don’t apply them. Enterprises are even more prone to patch management-related issues. Failure to update software results in exposure to known vulnerabilities.

3. Promote Phishing Awareness

Next on this list is phishing awareness. A phishing message can be hard to distinguish from a real message since it may originate from a known address hijacked by fraudsters. Poor grammar and peculiar content are red flags that often point to phishing attempts.

4. Use Complex Passwords

Passwords must be well-formed to be effective. Most experts consider a strong password to have a minimum of 12 characters, comprised of a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. But users want passwords they can remember, so they often substitute special characters in a string for letters. Unfortunately, this practice makes passwords easier for attackers to crack. Additionally, reusing a password, no matter how strong, can be a vulnerability in and of itself because attackers only need to guess right once to compromise multiple accounts.

5. Lock Your Mobile Device

It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: Lock your mobile device when not in use. These devices house all sorts of personal data, not to mention direct access to applications. Most devices offer a biometric or passcode method to activate such a lock. It’s a simple step, and it always pays off.

6. Open Your Security Toolbox

Most services that users access are equipped with tools that make dealing with overall security easier. These services should offer users overviews of their security settings as well as instructions on how to manage their notifications and alerts. Notifications about access attempts, for example, can alert users to potential vulnerabilities and help them outline strategies to deal with the underlying root causes.

Account Protection Is a Year-Round Effort

Security is a process, not a product. The National Cyber Security Alliance advice can help organizations and individual users improve their security posture, but these steps do not guarantee security by themselves. It is always incumbent on the user to be aware of his or her security year-round, not just during NCSAM.

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Larry Loeb

Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He wrote for IBM's DeveloperWorks site for seven years and has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange.