Our digitally connected world provides consumers with opportunities to be engaged with global communities, be educated and entertained, and shop with ease. But those opportunities carry some risks, too — of intrusions, and threats from criminals.

To help consumers stay safe online, Consumer Reports worked with dozens of security experts to put together an extensive guide covering everything from passwords for laptops and smartphones to ways to keep web-connected devices from leaking private data.

Consumer Reports recognizes privacy and data security as among the most important consumer issues of the 21st century. Individuals' health and financial information is increasingly stored online, as are photos and communications with friends and family. At the same time, software is now becoming a core part of products that may not appear to be digitally connected: cars, door locks, thermostats, wristwatches and more.

The past two years have been marked by news reports on data breaches, photo-hacking scandals, compromised home security cameras, ransomware attacks and more.

A nationally representative survey of 1,012 adults conducted by Consumer Reports illustrates that consumers are already taking some simple steps to protect themselves against hackers — but more needs to be done. More than 900 million records have been compromised from more than 5,000 data breaches made public since 2005, according to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

According to Consumer Reports' survey, 28 percent of respondents said they cover their webcams to help foil hackers. Forty-five percent said they back up their computers, 62 percent said they use two-factor authentication, 75 percent said they set a smartphone screen lock and 86 percent protect their home WiFi with a password.


Top tips

Here are five of the expert tips compiled by Consumer Reports:

• Be password loyal. People tell you to change passwords regularly. Don't, unless there's a good reason, such as responding to a data breach. Switch often, and you'll probably end up using weak options.

• Stop ID theft after a death. Identity theft affects 2.5 million estates every year, according to the IRS. If a loved one has died, send a copy of the death certificate to the IRS (the funeral home may help with that). Also, cancel any driver's license, and notify credit agencies, banks, insurance firms and financial institutions.

• Shut down webcam creeps. Malicious actors have repeatedly proven that they can turn on a laptop's camera without the user's knowledge. The simplest solution? Do what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and FBI Director James Comey do — put a piece of tape or a Post-it note over it.

Just fake it. Toymakers are rolling out connected kids' products — including tablets and talking dolls — and asking families to divulge personal information to register them. But that essentially provides marketers and potential hackers with details about your children. So consider providing fake information.

• Encrypt your computer files. You can encrypt your whole machine or just sensitive files. To encrypt specific files on a Mac, use the Disk Utility. Windows 10 Home users can download a free app such as GPG4win (aka Gnu Privacy Guard).

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.

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