When you work online, there's a lot more at risk than just a Facebook hacker sending all your friends junk mail. Your reputation and livelihood as a businesswoman are online—there's a lot that could go wrong if the wrong person gains access to sensitive information.
After the Heartbleed Bug gave hackers access to a computer's memory and sensitive data, the online world reacted in a panicked frenzy. But if you are a telecommuting work-at-home mom, you shouldn't wait until viruses make national news before taking steps to keep your information safe. Here's what you should be doing now, not just in the wake of the Heartbleed Bug, but habitually, to protect your identity in the digital age.
Never Give Out Sensitive Information Online
While this may sound like a "well, duh" tip, telecommuters often have to share information like social security numbers (SSN) to receive a W2 or other tax documents. An employer should never ask for your SSN up front, but they may request it when you send the first invoice. If they're asking for sensitive information right away, be extremely wary. Always do some background research into the company—and if they're not offering a company name, that's not a good sign.
Even if it's a reputable company, you should still be wary of giving out your SSN. If you often work small jobs online for people you've never met before who need your SSN, there is a way to avoid giving out that number by simply getting an Employee Identification Number. Essentially, getting an EIN turns you into a business entity instead of a person, but it's a good way to keep track of your income, as well as avoid giving our your SSN. Treat your EIN just like your SSN and do your research before you give it out, but overall it is safer to share an EIN than your SSN.
If you make less than a few hundred dollars a year, consult a tax professional to make sure getting an EIN is the right financial option. (Most receive better tax breaks with an EIN.) Never pay for an EIN unless you receive it while setting up a limited liability company, for which there is a small fee. Apply for it directly from the source at the IRS website.
Change Your Passwords Often
Passwords should be hard to guess—which means the best passwords shouldn't even be words. You should also change your password frequently. Freelance job sites, bank accounts, email accounts, online portfolios--all of these (and more) should have a secure password. But how are you supposed to remember a bunch of different passwords, especially if they're not even memorable words?
Password management systems take the stress out of keeping multiple secure passwords. LastPass is one of the most popular options, and they even have a feature that lists any sites within your history that may have been affected by the Heartbleed Bug, along with what you should do about it. The basic version is free, although if you'd like to have it on your smartphone as well as your computer there is a small fee. Dashlane is also a good password manager.
Choose Safe Payment Options
You should never have to give your bank account number to an employer you've never met before. Checks are a better option than direct deposit when you don't know who you are working with. If you'd like to be paid electronically, use a service like PayPal where you only have to give out the email associated with your account, not a bank account number.
And while we're on the subject, it's a good idea to have some sort of written agreement in place as a safeguard against non-payment. How much work will you do before the first payment? Will you add on a late fee? Depending on your business, you may even be able to require a deposit before getting started. (This doesn't work for every type of business. After all, the employers need to stay safe online as well.) You can also use sites like iFreelance, Elance or Guru. Some of their payment options are guaranteed and others have a third party to resolve payment disputes. Of course, for this security you'll wind up handing over a portion of what you earn.
Follow the Old Adage: Better Safe Than Sorry
When it comes to staying safe online, sometimes it just comes down to common sense. Just this week my husband's Facebook account was hacked and they sent messages to his friends saying they found a site giving away free laptops. Again, I'm being cliché here, but the advice is solid: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And don't send money to an employer—they're supposed to pay you, even if they claim you'll make $100,000 if you just send them $250 first.
If you're unsure, research the company. The Better Business Bureau is a good place to start, or you can also Google “[Company Name] scam.”
With your working reputation and even financial information on the internet, it's essential for telecommuters to take extra steps to stay safe online. Keep your sensitive information offline, use secure passwords, change passwords often, and get paid with secure options. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.