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Scam Alert

Tips for Protecting Your Electronic Devices

Here's how to keep one step ahead of identity theft

Enter a passcode on your cell phone, scam Alert to protect electronics (iStock)

An easy way to protect your smartphone is to make sure the device is locked with a hard-to-crack password. — iStock

En español | The calendar may be new, but 2014 will bring the same online threats to your money and identity when you use computers and smartphones.

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Here are some simple safeguarding steps that can go a long way:

Protect those presents

Whether Santa delivered the latest-and-greatest gizmo or old-school technology, secure it. For smartphones, at the very least use the security software that is recommended by your carrier or phone manufacturer. Free products such as Lookout Mobile Security are available for Android and iPhones; AT&T now preloads it on its handsets. Overall, many experts consider Android to be the least secure platform.

Turn off or disable unnecessary features to minimize the "attack surface" of your device. Use encryption features (if offered) to protect stored data in case of loss or theft.

For computers, basic free security software is available from AVG, Avast, Bitdefender or Malwarebytes. However, more comprehensive security "suite" products are better. They may be labeled as "total," "platinum" or "360" vs. those simply noted as "antivirus" or "anti-malware." For Macs, look into free protection software from Sophos or avast! Many experts recommend Firefox as a safer browser than Internet Explorer or Safari.

Check firewalls

A firewall is software or hardware that examines information coming from the Internet or a network, then either blocks it or allows it to pass through to your computer, depending on settings. Computer operating systems typically come with a built-in firewall. Here's how to check your settings for Windows and Apple's OS. Firewall security software beyond what's in the operating system may offer a stronger defense.

If your home has several computers using the same service provider, you likely have a router to link the modem to each. Routers usually also have a built-in firewall for added protection, but it's worth spending time reading the manual or visiting the manufacturer's website to educate yourself on setting options. When buying a router, always change the password from its factory default.

Know your privacy settings

When was the last time you checked the privacy settings on Facebook, Google Groups, Windows or anywhere else?

Never? It's a good time to start. If you don't protect yourself, many websites can track your online activity without your knowledge.

Speak Out: Tell us about scams and fraud you've come across

Many online services offer different levels of "control" to prevent the potential sharing of your online searches and website visits. Although setting up privacy controls at individual websites can be time-consuming, it's worth it. Get started here.

Strengthen your passwords

And of course, lock whatever device you have with a hard-to-crack password. For a smartphone, avoid easy-to-guess number combinations like 1234 or 2014. For a laptop or desktop, use a lengthy password that combines letters, numbers and symbols. You can gauge password strength with free "checkers" such as the best-known from Microsoft, or The PasswordMeter or Ask the Geek.

If you have trouble keeping track of multiple passwords, consider a password manager, software that helps you store and organize different passwords and PIN codes. Some allow you to create one "master" password and automatically enter log-in information. Most password managers start at about $20 a year, but some are scaled-down free versions — including PasswordBox, LastPass and RoboForm.

Sid Kirchheimer author of Scam-Proof Your Life, writes about consumer and health issues for AARP Media.

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