Fraudsters most commonly use email to target consumers, according to an annual report of consumer complaints from the Federal Trade Commission.
It makes sense, because an email account is where the different parts of life intersect: personal interests, school, work, banking, shopping, friends, family, travel plans, social media and so on. You tie account after account to an email address, have your passwords sent there when you forget, and receive updates about all sorts of personal activities.
If a hacker gets into your email, they may have hit the jackpot. It may seem like just a page in a Web browser or an app on your smartphone, but you need to surround it by the best defenses available.
Regardless, people do a lot of stupid things with their email accounts that leave them vulnerable to fraud.
Let's look at a few examples of common bad habits, along with some remedies to help you stay safer:
No one -- other than you -- should be able to access your account. That means your password can't be guessed, and you shouldn't give it to anyone. The longer and more complex it is --- meaning it combines uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, symbols, and words not in the dictionary --- the more secure it will be. Don't use your email password anywhere else (duplicating passwords is generally a bad idea), and don't save your login information on computers or mobile devices.
Never send your Social Security number or any account information via email, even if you trust the recipient, because you become less secure as soon as you press send. On top of that, personal information shouldn't be stored in your email account in the event it is compromised. If anything sensitive ends up in your inbox, delete it and empty the trash.
When in doubt, don't click. Even if a message appears to be from a friend or family member, anything that seems out of the ordinary should be deleted. You can always confirm with someone you know whether or not a message is legitimate, and they can re-send it if it is.
A few rules of thumb: A financial institution will not ask you to send or verify personal information through email. Any too-good-to-be-true offer that wants you to click something or send your information to redeem the offer is probably a scam. Don't open emails that are just a link, and for that matter, don't send emails like that, because it looks like spam.
Your email account is a gateway to your online identity, which is something you don't want someone to mess with. Protect it accordingly.