Help! I’ve been hacked

Four ways to protect yourself online.

hackedThough technology makes a freelance writer’s work easy in many ways, it also leaves us prey to some particularly nasty attacks.

In the course of daily business, freelance writers may communicate with high-profile sources, send sensitive documents and contracts back and forth online, and spend a considerable amount of effort marketing themselves through social media.

And all of these activities leave them vulnerable to malicious activity. In the past few years, data breaches and high-profile hacking cases have mounted a convincing argument for protecting oneself online. What’s the best way to do so? Security experts give their tips.

Change your passwords frequently and make them hack-proof.

“For writers, change any online storage passwords at least once a week – email, Google Plus, Dropbox,” says Gary Miliefsky, president and founder of SnoopWall, a spyware detection software company. “It might sound painful, but if you change your password once a week, you probably reduce the risk 90 percent. It’s really hard to crack a password that keeps changing.” And don’t simply use dictionary words. Be sure to incorporate symbols and numbers and mix in both upper and lower case letters.

Use an Employee Identification Number instead of a Social Security Number.

This is particularly important if you frequently send your SSN to clients on W9s. “Your social security number is the key to the kingdom – it’s what criminals use to open a new account in your name,” says Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert for bestidtheftcompanys.com. “Once you email that document out you have absolutely no control over it.” According to the IRS, anyone whose principal business, office or legal residence is in the U.S. can apply for an EIN instantly online through the IRS website.

Keep antivirus and anti-malware software up to date.

Malware is malicious software that can infect your computer, phone or other devices with viruses, spyware or unwanted ads. Miliefsky said malware is more prevalent than people realize, and freelance writers could easily become targets. “I’m absolutely certain that 45 out of the 50 apps you installed on your cell phone are malware,” he said. “Some of them are spying on you. Get rid of them.” Once you’ve cleaned up your apps, install good antivirus and privacy scanning software.

Beware of free Wi-Fi.

Working from your mobile office at a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi is one of the perks of the flexible freelance life, but keep in mind that free Wi-Fi is unprotected and can leave your information vulnerable to hackers. “It’s important that you have a virtual private network installed,” said Siciliano. A VPN provides encryption for the data that is transferred between your computer and the Internet. Additionally, if you’re transmitting sensitive information on public Wi-Fi, be sure you are connected to a website using https. (This is listed in the address bar.)

It happened to me 

Though it may seem benign compared to some of the more nefarious forms of identity theft, website and social media hacking is particularly problematic for freelancers. Los Angeles-based writer Lauren Tharp’s website was “pharma hacked” in 2012, resulting in a loss of 87 percent of her traffic.

“My website was out of commission for about a week and, in that time, was blacklisted by Google,” says Tharp. “It took quite a while to regain my audience’s trust.”

Tharp said the worst part of the experience was the helplessness. “One minute you’re humming along in complete control of your writing career,” she says, “and then the next minute all of that control is taken away from you.”

Robert Downs, a freelance writer in Chicago, has experienced a variety of privacy intrusions, including a compromised bank account and compromised email and Twitter accounts. Recently, top editors on Twitter were treated to a variety of direct messages sent by someone who cracked into Downs’ account.

“If they were following me before, they certainly weren’t now,” he says. “You have to create your reputation online, and when you send in a pitch, there’s this immediate trust you’ve got to establish in about a paragraph. When you’ve got ads coming out of your Twitter feed that are totally unrelated to journalism, it hurts your credibility.”

Both Tharp and Downs bounced back from their experiences with a stronger interest in digital security. Tharp beefed up her website security, while Downs made sure to frequently change his passwords. Both advised maintaining your calm when you get hacked.

“Once it happens to you, try to have a sense of humor with it, because a lot of times there’s just nothing you can do,” Downs says. “If someone wants to hack into your account, they will. Don’t profusely apologize to everyone – they know what it’s like.”

Given the prevalence of these types of attacks, they probably really do. –CJD

Cynthia J. Drake is a writer in Austin, Texas. She specializes in finance, travel and lifestyle features.