Like ants at a picnic, thieves have swarmed to cyberspace. And they’re after much more than the crumbs from our lunch. They are bent on stealing our personal information so that they can move on to stealing our assets, our credit and anything else we have of value.

Recent news that Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan, Fidelity and other companies have been hacked should get everyone’s attention. These are companies with high-profile security teams and large security budgets. If they’re being successfully hacked, then the bad guys are truly one step ahead.

Data thieves covet Social Security numbers, passwords, e-mail addresses and personal credentials. Once they steal your information, they can use it to apply for credit cards, wireless services, payday loans and even mortgages and tax refunds.  Stolen personal data puts your finances, credit and good name at risk.

Rather than hoping that corporate data security breaches won’t happen again, we should treat them as a fact of modern life. The companies that have our data must do everything possible to secure it, but we must take our own safety precautions as well.

Passwords

Experts advise using a password with at least 12 to 14  characters if permitted, combining upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols. Each password should be distinct so that hackers can’t use one to access multiple accounts belonging to you. Keeping track of all those passwords is much easier when you use a password manager app. Look here to start researching your options.

When a major breach makes headlines, it’s best to assume that your information has been stolen. Change each of your passwords, making sure that the new ones are robust.

For more security, consider using “two-factor authentication.” This protocol, offered by an increasing number of financial, retail and other institutions, adds an extra step to the sign-in process in order to prove you are who you claim to be. Two-factor systems might, for instance, require you to enter a second password, usually sent to your cell phone. Only the person in possession of your phone will be able to log in.

Fraud Alerts

All three major credit-rating agencies allow you to authorize fraud alerts at no cost. These alerts ensure that before issuing new credit, a creditor will contact you or take other steps to verify your identity. Once you request a fraud alert with any credit-rating agency, the other agencies are automatically notified and do the same. Fraud alerts can be set up for the short term or permanently.

Another alternative to consider is using an identity-protection company such as LifeLock. LifeLock does extensive monitoring for attempts to use your personal information. If suspicious activity is detected, customers receive alerts through phone or e-mail.

Inbound E-Mails

E-mails purporting to be from your financial institution, social media provider, government agency or other institutions should be viewed with suspicion. Understand that no legitimate financial institution will e-mail you with a request to verify information. Never click on a link in such an e-mail; rather, type the address of your financial institution directly in your browser’s address bar or pick up the phone and call, using a number you know to be accurate.

The Internet has made our lives better and more efficient in many ways. But there’s a trade-off for that convenience: Personal responsibility to help safeguard our information.