Should Freelancers Sweat Cybersecurity?

By Natalie Burg June 3rd, 2020

As you’re sipping an oat milk cortado in a coffee shop or laying on the couch next to a snoring dog, it’s easy for freelancers to become a bit removed from the everyday woes of most working people. Office politics? No thank you. Traffic? Poor things. Personal hygiene? Swore that off a long time ago.

But one menace is unavoidable whether you collect 1099s or W-2s: cybercrime.

Sorry to be a killjoy. But according to Gallop, 23 percent of U.S. households were victimized by cybercrime in 2018—more than any other reported crime. As a freelancer, you’re likely more exposed than most thanks to your constant connectivity, frequent new email contacts, and transient work patterns.

“Freelancers should absolutely worry about cybersecurity,” said Jessica Naziri, founder of technology and lifestyle site “Freelancers can inadvertently expose sensitive company data through unsecured Wi-Fi networks or poor password hygiene.”

Consider your own exposure too. What financial or personal info might hackers be able to access through that laptop you’ve toted to the coffee shop?

Cybersecurity may be a serious matter for freelancers to address, but it’s not rocket science—or, more aptly, it’s not writing a 40-page whitepaper on rocket science. Here’s what you should do to shore up your digital security.

Don’t use unprotected public Wi-Fi

Trust your barista with getting your foam just right, but not with your data.

“It cannot be stressed enough that connecting to public Wi-Fi can be very dangerous if you aren’t taking any precautions,” warned Mark Soto, owner of Milwaukee-based cybersecurity company Cybericus. “One precaution is to simply not use any public Wi-Fi, and use your phone as a hotspot when you’re not at home.”

Soto also suggested investing in a virtual private network or VPN. This software helps secure your network connection and shield internet activity in public. Unguarded, hackers can sneak onto your computer, grab whatever financial info, login credentials, and personal identification data they can get their hands on, and you might never know.

“It’s one of the best investments you can make, and it isn’t too expensive either,” Soto said. VPNs run from around $3 to $15 a month.

Secure your home network

Sometimes the danger comes from inside the house.

“Hackers take advantage of the fact that home networks usually don’t have the same level of security as corporate networks,” said Naziri. “If your Wi-Fi is open, hackers can connect, spy on traffic that passes through them, and access confidential information from devices on the network.”

To avoid that disaster, the National Cybersecurity Alliance’s StaySafeOnline initiative offers a few tips, including:

  • Change the default name on your router to something that doesn’t make clear which home it belongs to.
  • Change the preset password on your router.
  • Select a security level for your router above WEP. StaySafeOnline recommends WPA2, if available, or WPA. You’ll find these options in the settings menu of your router software.
  • If your router allows it, create a separate password for guests—or have a whole different network for visitors.

Back it all up

Freelancers often learn the value of backing up their data from an elbow-meets-coffee-meets-keyboard scenario, but it’s worth reinforcing from a cybersecurity angle too. Ransomware is an increasingly common type of cybercrime where a hacker locks you out of your files until you pay to get them back.

“If you were to, for some reason, lose all your files on your computer tomorrow, how would that affect you?” Soto asked. “Did you have any saved backups for that logo that’s due tomorrow? Did you save that 2,000-word article you’ve been working on for the past two days anywhere?”

If you did, ransomware loses its bite. If you don’t, you might find yourself among the many people who, against the advice of authorities, just pay $200-$400 to get their files unlocked. Soto recommends using a cloud backup system, which typically costs anywhere from $2 to $15 per month, depending on how much storage you need. External hard drives can be a tad risky since hackers can access them when the drive is connected to your computer.

Install antivirus software

Given how long it’s been since the term “computer virus” has been top-of-mind, it’s easy to assume antivirus software is no longer a big deal. But here’s the thing: What we call antivirus is really anti-malware software. Malware is the umbrella term for all malicious software, so a good antivirus program will scan your computer for all sorts of digital threats.

“Sadly, you do still need antivirus software,” Naziri said. “It doesn’t have to be the one preloaded [on your computer], but definitely get one.”

And just in case you felt safe and smug behind your MacBook, bad news: Experts agree that Macs need antivirus software too. It typically costs around $20 to $30 per year.

Practice good internet hygiene

Listen, do whatever you want with your personal hygiene. No one will be the wiser. But know that your internet hygiene has real consequences: One study found that human error was responsible for about 90 percent of cybercrimes.

In addition to regular backups and running your antivirus software, here are some everyday practices that keep you safer:

  • Create strong, unique passwords for every (yes, every) online account. Utilize a password manager to keep track of them all. Password managers safety store all of your login credentials from various websites and auto-populate the login fields on websites when you need them. That way, you can have passwords so strong that you can’t even remember them. Paid varieties run $20-$60 a year. Free versions exist, like Google Chrome’s built-in password manager, but as Soto points out, if someone hacks your Google account, they get they keys to your digital kingdom.
  • Don’t open any files you weren’t expecting. It’s a big ask for freelancers who might get a surprise lead via email, but every file should be regarded with suspicion. And definitely don’t open files with .exe extensions, Naziri said. Those are programs.
  • Hover over a link before you click in an unsolicited email or suspicious website. Make sure the URL you see appear in the lower-left corner of your browser matches the intended destination.
  • Update your software every time you get an alert. Software needs constant updating to stay ahead of hackers.

While it takes a bit of time and effort to protect yourself with smart cybersecurity habits, once you’ve implemented them, you don’t need to spend your time worrying about getting hacked or forking over a few hundred precious dollars to a hacker. Cybercriminals may come knocking, but when they don’t find an easy way in, they’re likely to leave you alone.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer and editor covering technology, business, finance, development, healthcare, and wellness. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Photo credit: sorbetto