Rarely does a week go by without news of another hacking incident. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that a Russian crime ring had amassed some 1.2 billion username and password combinations.
The Times report, based on information from Milwaukee-based Hold Security, called the data ''the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials.'' Hold's researchers did not identify the origins of the data or name the victim websites, citing nondisclosure agreements. The company also said it didn't want to name companies whose websites are still vulnerable to hacking, according to the Times report.
A representative for Hold Security could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Security threats have long been part of online life, but the increased attention on them makes now a good time to review ways to protect yourself.
If there's reason to believe any of your passwords might have been compromised, change them immediately. One of the best things you can do is to make sure your passwords are strong. Here are seven ways to fortify them:
1. Make your password long. The recommended minimum is eight characters, but 14 is better and 25 is even better than that. Some services have character limits on passwords, though.
2. Use combinations of letters and numbers, upper and lower case and symbols such as the exclamation mark. Some services won't let you do all of that, but try to vary it as much as you can. ''PaSsWoRd!43'' is far better than ''password43.''
3. Avoid words that are in dictionaries, even if you add numbers and symbols. There are programs that can crack passwords by going through databases of known words. One trick is to add numbers in the middle of a word - as in ''pas123swor456d'' instead of ''password123456.'' Another is to think of a sentence and use just the first letter of each word - as in ''tqbfjotld'' for ''the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.''
4. Substitute characters. For instance, use the number zero instead of the letter O, or replace the S with a dollar sign.
5. Avoid easy-to-guess words, even if they aren't in the dictionary. You shouldn't use your name, company name or hometown, for instance. Avoid pets and relatives' names, too. Likewise, avoid things that can be looked up, such as your birthday or ZIP code. But you might use that as part of a complex password. Try