Despite warnings, many computer users unknowingly leave them themselves vulnerable to financial fraud or privacy invasions.
In recognition of Data Privacy Day, which was held on Jan. 28, Attorney General Rob McKenna warned Washington residents to protect their personal information by checking the privacy settings on social web sites and using secured networks.
"It's time to ask what happens to the bytes and bits of information we send over our computers and mobile phones, and to recognize that our online communications can increase our risk of financial or other harm," McKenna said.
Here are three steps McKenna said people can take now to help ensure that they don't unintentionally compromise their personal information:
1. Know privacy settings.
A recent industry study found that 21 percent of adult social network users are leaving their profiles open for anyone to see. That's about 24 million Americans.
The same study found that 70 million people have shared their birthplace on social networking sites and 20 million provided their pet's name. Those are the same details that people are often asked to provide to verify their identity when setting up bank accounts, and not information you want to share outside of your circle of friends and family.
If you post vacation updates on an open site or "check in" when you're out and about, you're telling the world - and possibly a burglar - that your home is vacant.
There's also your reputation to consider. Other research shows 70 percent of human resources professionals have rejected a candidate based on what they found out about the person by searching online.
As part of Data Privacy Day, Facebook is reminding its users that they have control over their privacy settings, found both at the bottom of every Facebook page and in the account settings. With just a few clicks, people can adjust the type of information that strangers, application developers and friends can access, as well as control the information friends can share about them.
2. Configure your wireless router to encrypt data.
Wireless internet access is convenient, but users need to activate their router's encryption feature to better ensure information transmitted over the web - such as account logins, passwords and credit card numbers - are scrambled.
Read the instructions that come with the wireless router to determine how to turn on the encryption feature. Two main types of encryption are available: WiFi Protected Access (WPA) and Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Your computer, router and other equipment must use the same encryption. WPA2 is strongest; wireless users should use it if they have a choice.
Change the router's hardware identifier and preset password so a hacker can't use the defaults to try to access the network.
Of course, people should also use anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a firewall. For help configuring the router, visit www.onguardonline.gov/topics/wireless-security.aspx.
3. Don't assume that public "hot spots" are secure.
Café, hotel and airport "hot spots" are convenient, but people need to assume that other people can see anything they see or send over a public wireless network.