Cyberattacks targeting post-secondary students are becoming increasingly common, but new research shows only 15 per cent of Canadian students have taken extra steps to protect their online data.

According to research from cybersecurity firm McAfee, publically disclosed cyberattacks targeting the education sector increased 50 per cent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2019.

But of the 1,000 students surveyed by McAfee, only 15 per cent admitted to taking extra steps to protect their personal academic data online – while over 70 per cent proactively protected their bank of financial information.

“It is crucial that students, parents and educational institutions are more thorough and proactive about protecting what matters to them – and students’ futures,” Gary Davis, McAfee’s chief consumer security analyst, said in a release.

“It is equally important that we educate students about cyber safety, after all, nearly half of college students are unaware of the likelihood that they will fall victim to cybercrime in their lifetime.”

Canadian colleges and universities have been increasingly targeted by hackers.

In 2016, both Carleton University and the University of Calgary were targeted by ransomware attacks. The University of Calgary was forced to hand over $20,000 to hackers after they overtook the school’s computer system, encrypting files, and cutting off access to its wireless network.

Last week, the University of Waterloo noted that there has been a “significant increase” in the number of financial spear phishing campaigns targeting university accounts.

Yet McAfee’s research shows discrepancies between students’ awareness of cyber threats.

While over 80 per cent of respondents said they have been personally affected, or know someone who has been the victim of a cyberattack, nearly 40 per cent doubted that they would fall victim to a cybercrime.

How students can protect their online data

According to McAfee’s experts, one of the best ways to protect your online data is to use unique passwords for each of your online accounts.

Typically passwords that use eight to 10 upper and lower-case letters mixed with numbers are proven to be more secure. When choosing numbers to add to your password, be sure not to use anything that is easily identifiable, such as your address or date of birth.

If you use the cloud, experts suggest setting up two-factor authentication on your account and avoid entering sensitive personal information or conducting financial transactions when using public Wi-Fi networks.

According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, another common way hackers obtain personal information is through phishing emails.

If you receive a suspicious email asking you for detailed personal information, check the sender’s email address and any suspicious links by hovering your mouse over the link to verify the address.

Be sure not to click on any attachments from emails that seem suspicious, as they could contain viruses.

When it comes to the risk of malware or ransomware, the best way to protect yourself is to make sure your electronics are updated with the most recent software update and invest in virus protection software for your devices.