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Play Hard, Stay Safe

You still need to keep data security in mind when playing games online, as recent incidents have shown.

You might think that you don't have to worry about security while playing games--after all, that activity is about as far from online banking as you can get--but as the PlayStation Network data breach last spring and the more recent hack into the servers of the Steam gaming platform both show, you are vulnerable, even when you're at play.

However, just taking some basic steps can keep your data more secure, and let you focus on holding down the fort against The Horde.

Use strong passwords: This one step seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Your password is your first line of defense in protecting your personal information, and it is one aspect of security that you can directly control, so make it good.

Consider using a "passphrase" instead of a password--that is, string several words together--and replace some letters with other characters. Also, come up with a mnemonic that only you know, and apply it to your passwords. See "How to Build Better Passwords Without Losing Your Mind" to learn more.

Avoid entering your credit card information, if possible: Some gaming services, such as Steam, can store credit card information to make buying games easier. If you have a choice, though, try to avoid using your credit card altogether. This can reduce the risk of your number being stolen in the event that a company's servers become compromised.

Alternatively, if you must enter credit card information, consider using a prepaid credit card so that you don't have to give out your actual credit card information. Prepaid cards are generally reloadable, so you can add cash value to them as you go. Check with your bank to see what it offers.

If you are making one-time payments, look into using virtual credit card numbers. These are numbers that you can use in place of your actual credit card number and that are good for one use only. They're an appropriate choice for any form of online shopping, and most major banks provide a virtual credit card service of some sort. See "Go Virtual for Safer Online Shopping" for more on this approach.

Consider paying with prepaid gift cards: For some gaming services, such as PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, you can purchase prepaid cards or gift cards and use those instead of paying with your credit card. This may be a good option if you're feeling extra paranoid about giving out your credit card details. And these prepaid cards are readily available--look for them at your local supermarket or drugstore.

Use a designated email account for your gaming: In other words, set up an email account specifically for use with your gaming accounts. That way, if someone compromises one of your gaming accounts and gets hold of the email address you used with it, your main email account won't be inundated with spam. And be­­cause of its gaming-only use, if your gaming email account becomes compromised, you'll face a lower risk of having other accounts (such as your online banking account) hijacked as well. Of course, you should still make sure to use a strong password for your gaming email address.

Beware of Facebook games: When you approve a Facebook app or game (FarmVille, Mafia Wars, or whatever), you allow that app to access various bits of personal data that you've posted to your Facebook profile.

Users implicitly trust app developers to manage such personal data responsibly, but ultimately it's out of our hands: In October 2010, for instance, a class-action lawsuit alleged that Facebook game developer Zynga (FarmVille, Mafia Wars) gave users' personal information to advertisers and others, violating federal privacy laws and Facebook's own policies.

So if you care about your privacy, don't approve any and every app somebody invites you to try. Instead, use apps only from developers you trust. And if possible, check the app's terms of use and privacy policy be­­fore you approve it, so you know what you're getting into.

Steam Guard is your friend: If you use the Steam service, use Steam Guard. It's a feature that adds security to Steam accounts by requiring you to respond to a confirmation email every time you sign in to Steam from a new computer. That step will help prevent someone from being able to log in to your account and purchase games or access your personal information without your consent.PCWorld Editorial Assistant Armando Rodriguez contributed to this article.

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