NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Most people have something in common with Hillary Clinton, and it has nothing to do with politics: they struggle to keep their email accounts safe. This could be particularly dangerous as far as their finances are concerned.
The situation Clinton has found herself in -- using a potentially unsecured email server registered to her home instead of a Department of State email account -- highlights for consumers the importance of keeping their company email system or personal email accounts secure. Since the majority of computer users send everything from bank information to Social Security numbers out via email, maintaining the integrity of an account is of the essence.
"With as much business and personal correspondence being conducted in the online sphere, including via email, it's of vital importance to keep those exchanges secured and away from cybercriminals who traffic in selling personal information on the black market," said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's rapid response team.
The real danger in dealing with email is not that it will be intercepted in transit and hacked, but that nefarious characters will leverage the trust people have with their system to steal vital, personal information. The schemes go by various names, but phishing and ransomware are two of the more common and dangerous.
A phishing attack has the email owner receiving what looks like an innocuous message from a reputable organization, such as a bank. The email asks for something the bank should already have such as an account or Social Security number. In fact, this type of email is imitating the bank in order to get an unsuspecting individual to cough up their most vital numbers.
"Do you open your front door to just anyone?" said Robert Siciliano, an online security expert for the Internet security software maker McAfee. "Of course not. Don't open strange emails or any email that you're not completely confident in."
Tom Kellerman, Trend Micro's chief cybersecurity officer, pointed out one particularly nasty trick phishing scammers use: fake links. Just because the link says it goes to Citibank does not mean that is the real destination.
"Never just click on links; cut and paste them into the browser to see where it really goes," he said. "If you end up in Kazakhstan you know its a bad link."
Unknown emails can also hide malware that could allow your computer to be fully taken over. The criminal gang responsible will then hold your computer hostage, demanding a payment in return for access to your device.
The good news is that while email accounts are vulnerable, there are several basic steps anyone can take to make the more secure.
"To have a more secure email account on your computer or smartphone, it is necessary to activate the Two Factor authentication feature," Fabio Assolini, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. "Most of the webmail services offer it for free. This security feature sends an OTP or an on time password, a short number, via SMS to your smartphone. Once you receive this message, you'll need to input the OTP to fully access your account."
Another important point to remember is making sure the computer's operating system and software applications like Adobe are properly and continuously updated, Kellerman said. He warned that missing just one critical update that contains a needed security patch could doom a computer.
Other handy tips from Trend Micro include never using unsecured public Wi-Fi, particularly in places like airports and coffee shops, as criminals will often camp out and try and get into your system. An additional protective layer is to make sure smartphones and tablets are also have security software installed, as this software tracks incoming emails for malware.
--Written by Doug Olenick for MainStreet
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.