Back-to-school security

Five tips for protecting your electronics, your network, and your info on campus and beyond.

As you prepare for the start of the school year, make security part of your planning. Unattended laptops and phones, unsecured Wi-Fi connections, and lost credit cards offer plenty of opportunities for thieves and hackers to steal your property, data, and money. Safeguard your stuff with these five security tips.

Set up remote location

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You've spent a fortune on that laptop, tablet, and smartphone, so it'd be a shame to lose any of them to misplacement or theft. If you own a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or Android device, take advantage of the built-in protective features.

On your Mac, head to Finder, Applications, Settings, System Preferences, iCloud, then Find My Mac to switch on the service. If your Mac is out of your hands, you can sign in to your iCloud to play a sound, lock, or erase the Mac.

On your iPhone or iPad, head to Settings, iCloud, and Find My iPhone and make sure that the switch is set to on. With this service activated, you'll be able to find, lock, or wipe your device. No one else can erase or reactivate it without your permission. You can also switch on Send Last Location, so if your battery is about to die, you'll get a notification of your device's last location.

On Android, set up Android Device Manager by clicking the Google Settings app, tapping Security, and, under Android Device Manager, toggling on the switches next to "Remotely locate this device" and "Allow remote lock and factory reset." Now you'll be able to find, lock, or erase your device. With version 1.2.12 or later of Android Device Manager, you can also log in via guest mode on another person's phone to find your device.

For added protection, there are a host of paid apps for finding your lost or stolen device. Hidden (Web, iOS), Undercover (Mac), LoJack (Windows, Android, iOS), and Prey (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS) boast extra features like photographing the perpetrator, creating screenshots and keylogging records of their activities, and letting you send a spoken message so you can communicate with whoever found or stole your phone.

Lock your electronics

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Not all theft is physical. If you leave your device unattended and unlocked, you risk both the gadget and the information on it. Someone could access and misuse your info or even load malicious software on your device. The best first step is to set a strong password for your computer, tablet, or phone.

To do so, Windows users can click Start, User Accounts, Control Panel, User Accounts and Family Safety, User Accounts, then Create a Password.

Mac users can go to System Settings, Security & Privacy, and then General.

On your iPhone, head to Settings, then Touch ID and Passcode to set a passcode or Touch ID.

On your Android device, go to the Settings menu and Lock Screen, and set your passcode or swiping gesture to unlock. You can also control how quickly your screens lock before requiring a passcode.

If you want to instantly lock your computer before stepping away from it, Windows users can hit the Windows key plus L.

If you're a Mac user, you'll have to configure your computer under System Settings and then Security & Privacy to "Require password immediately after sleep or screen saver begins." Then press Control, Shift, Fn, and the Power button to lock your screen. When you try to log on again, you'll have to enter your password. If you use iOS with the latest Macs and OS X Yosemite or later, use Locky (iOS) to lock your Mac just by walking away with your phone. Unlock it again by returning with your phone.

Once your devices are locked behind a password, get a good password manager to protect your online accounts.

Surf securely

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If you're connected to your school's unsecured Wi-Fi, then your every move online can be tracked. Even if your connection is secure, school officials and your Internet provider may monitor which websites you're visiting and your data packets. A trusted virtual private network (VPN) can help you surf more securely by hiding your IP address and encrypting your activity. Check out our picks for the best paid VPNs for Windows. Our top pick, IVPN (Windows), also works on Mac. To use IVPN on your Android or iOS device, just install OpenVPN Connect (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android), an open-source client that connects you to IVPN (or your preferred VPN's service) from your tablet or phone. To connect, input the credentials IVPN provides when you sign up.

Message carefully

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Our social media activity and messaging lives on even after deactivation -- sometimes even after death. So a growing number of privacy-minded students are using anonymous posting apps like Yik Yak (iOS, Android) and Whisper (iOS, Android) and unidentifiable messaging apps like Truth (iOS), Wut (iOS), and Confide (iOS, Android). While these apps are great ways to get things off your chest more secretly, they can't protect you from gossip or bullying. To stay transparent, try Spray (iOS, Android). Another privacy-minded app, Kaboom (iOS, Android), is great for creating posts or sending messages that self-destruct after a prescribed amount of time. If you insist on using Facebook, check out our tips for using it securely.

Buy responsibly

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It's too easy to lose cash and credit cards on or off campus. You'll do better with payment apps, such as Apple Pay, Google Wallet (iOS, Android), PayPal (iOS, Android), and Venmo (iOS, Android). These secure payment methods enable you to buy at myriad retailers and are an easy to way to pay friends, too. For parents concerned about how their hard-earned money is spent, the Oink app (iOS) lets you to see your children's purchases.

More Resources

20 tools for back to school

CNET's Back-to-school tech gift guide

Security and Antivirus Center

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for Download.com and covers iOS.