On The Digital Castle: 5 Things You Can Do to Keep Your Home Safe From Cybercriminals

Ah, the holidays. What a wonderful time to travel, to warmer weather or the slopes.

It is also a joyous time for your family, friends, celebrations, and possibly criminals (digital or physical) patrolling your neighborhood, sending you phishing emails or texts, and looking for the perfect opportunity to star in their own version of Home Alone

Once upon a time, keeping your home secure meant little more than installing a front door deadbolt and maybe contracting with a home security company for an alarm system. Those are still good ideas, but in today’s interconnected digital home, protecting your home goes beyond physical security measures. 

Criminals (cyber or not) pose a significant threat, targeting homeowners through channels ranging from social media (such as posting everywhere you’ve left for Carmel, Hawaii, or a ski trip in Europe) to Wi-Fi routers. But by implementing robust cybersecurity practices, homeowners can safeguard their property, sensitive information, and personal well-being. 

Following are five steps every homeowner should take to defend their home:

  1. Update and monitor your network security. It’s not unusual for criminals to cruise neighborhoods phishing for residential Wi-Fi networks that are easy to crack. Too many homeowners have passwords that contain their address as their “password.” If thieves break into your WIFi network, they can access communications on that network, including bank transactions, your user credentials, and credit card activity. A simple solution before you leave for your holiday, is to change your default router password and enable network encryption (WPA2 or higher), in fact, you should be updating these credentials on a regular basis. Use a passphrase, and not your pet’s first name. Also, regularly update your router firmware to patch vulnerabilities. Other steps you can take include setting up a guest network just for visitors; setting up a firewall to filter incoming and outgoing traffic; and consider using a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt internet traffic while you are home. 
  2. Keep software up to date. Most consumer devices already have pretty effective cybersecurity software installed…but it only protects you when you update it. Regularly update all your devices when you see manufacturer alerts for operating system or firmware updates—computers, smartphones, smart home devices, and wireless routers. Even better, activate automatic updates so your hardware is always working with the latest software. And, as a reminder, make sure to update your iCloud passwords on a regular basis, as your cloud enabled devices, sync and control all your devices.
  3. Secure your smart devices. Smart doorbells and home speakers are wonders, but if hackers get into them, they can wreak havoc. Secure your Internet of Things (IoT) devices by following the manufacturer’s guidelines for installation, configuration, and updates. Change all the default usernames and passwords disable any unnecessary features, and if you can, put smart devices on separate wireless networks. This reduces the chances that one device can become an entry point for all your devices. You should also monitor device activity and treat any unauthorized activity as suspicious. Remember how many smart devices we have now: phones, speakers, thermostats, baby monitors, refrigerators, ovens, beds, audio systems, even toothbrushes. 
  4. Practice social media hygiene. We’re all in the habit of posting our every move to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, and that’s fine…unless you’re away from home for an extended period. If someone in your family has social feeds that are visible to anyone, it’s not hard for criminals to figure out that you’re at Disney World and there’s nobody looking after your home. That makes you easy prey for burglars and Amazon package thieves. An easy way to neutralize this threat is to simply set all social media feeds for everyone in your family so that only friends or followers can see them, and then to decline any suspicious friend or follower requests. It also doesn’t hurt to create a “no posts while we’re on vacation” rule. You can share all your memories when you get home. 
  5. Limit outgoing information. Cyber criminals often use surprisingly low-tech methods to gain access to private information. One of those is the good old U.S. Mail. Leaving incoming mail in a mail slot or some other place where someone could steal it, or leaving outgoing mail for your mail carrier to take, makes you vulnerable. Thieves could pilfer incoming mail and get information like your Social Security number or return credit card offers in your name. They could also steal checks or other sensitive documents that you leave for pickup. The solutions are easy. Replace a mail slot or nonsecure mailbox with a locking mailbox or “smart mailbox,” and never leave outgoing mail for your postal carrier. Take it to your local post office instead. 

Protecting your home from cyber criminals requires a proactive and multi-layered approach. I know this is a lot of work, but by taking these steps now, and automating what you can, along with making some pretty simple changes to habits, homeowners can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to cyber threats and safeguard their property and personal information. 

Christopher A. Smith is the author of Privacy Pandemic: How Cybercriminals Determine Targets, Attack Identities, and Violate Privacy—and How Consumers, Companies, and Policy-Makers Can Fight Back—from Amplify Publishing.