08/06/2014 AT 07:50 AM EDT
Russian hackers have stolen 1.2 billion user names and passwords in a series of Internet heists affecting 420,000 websites, according to a report published Tuesday.
The thievery was described in a New York Times
story based on the findings of Hold Security
, a Milwaukee firm that has a history of uncovering online security breaches.
The identities of the websites that were broken into weren't identified by The Times
, which cited nondisclosure agreements that required Hold Security to keep some information confidential.
The reported break-ins are the latest incidents to raise doubts about the security measures that both big and small companies use to protect people's information online. Security experts believe those hackers will continue breaking into computer networks unless companies become more vigilant.
"Companies that rely on usernames and passwords have to develop a sense of urgency about changing this," Avivah Litan, a security analyst at the research firm Gartner told The Times
Alex Holden, the founder and chief information security officer of Hold Security, told the newspaper that most of the sites hit by the Russian hackers are still vulnerable to further break-ins. Besides filching 1.2 billion online passwords, the hackers also have amassed 500 million email addresses that could help them engineer other crimes.
So far, little of the information stolen in the wave of attacks appears to have been sold to other online crooks, according to The Times
. Instead, the information is being used to send marketing pitches, schemes and other junk messages on social networks like Twitter.
The breadth of these break-ins should serve as a chilling reminder of the skullduggery that has been going undetected on the Internet for years, one Internet security CEO said. "This issue reminds me of an iceberg, where 90 percent of it is actually underwater," said John Prisco, CEO of another security firm, Triumfant, in a statement.
Here's what you can do to keep your online accounts safe and your passwords strong:
Make your password long. The recommended minimum is eight characters, but 14 is better and 25 is even better than that.
Use combinations of letters and numbers, upper and lower case and symbols such as the exclamation mark. "PaSsWoRd!43" is far better than "password43."
Avoid words that are in dictionaries, even if you add numbers and symbols. There are programs that can crack passwords by going through databases of known words. One trick is to add numbers in the middle of a word – as in "pas123swor456d" instead of "password123456."
Substitute characters. For instance, use the number zero instead of the letter O, or replace the S with a dollar sign.
Avoid easy-to-guess words, even if they aren't in the dictionary. You shouldn't use your name, company name or hometown. Avoid pets' and relatives' names and things that can be looked up, such as your birthday or ZIP code.
Never reuse passwords on other accounts.