Think for a minute about the kinds of banking information you store on your personal computer. Then think of the exposure you would face if the wrong person got their grubby hands on that information. Not fun.
Even when your computer is not logged into the Internet, you could still be vulnerable. Laptops can be stolen, and computers can be accessed by anyone who happens to be in the room. That doesn't mean there's any reason to make things easy for them.
One simple way to prevent casual exposure of information is to keep your computer locked when you're not using it. Most operating systems have this feature. On shared computers, make sure you always log off and that your files are accessible to you alone.
That will prevent theft by people with easy access to your computer. But if your laptop gets stolen, the thief could very well find his or her way past that lock password. What then? For a major step up in security, you can encrypt your sensitive documents. Even if someone steals your computer, they'll have a hard time unlocking encrypted files.
More robust operating systems, like Vista Ultimate, include BitLocker, which can lock down your data. It takes some work on your part to set up, but it can protect your entire hard drive [source: Trapani]. Mac OSX users have FileVault, which can protect individual folders. Other third-party systems are also available for both Mac and Windows systems. Note that BitLocker requires a physical device that you need to plug into a USB port on your computer to even gain access to your hard drive. Pretty secure, but if you're the type that's always fumbling for your keys, it's probably not the solution for you.
If you have an operating system like Vista Ultimate, you should also be able to individually encrypt folders by going into Windows Explorer, right-clicking the folder to encrypt and select the option for "Properties." Under "Advanced" in the "General" tab, select the checkbox for "Encrypt Contents to Secure Data" [source: Cook].
For most people, 128-bit encryption should be good enough, but if you're the paranoid type, you might be comforted to know that 256-bit encryption is enough to make the United States government comfortable with its Top Secret data [source: NSA]. Later on, we'll look at some third-party tools to protect your sensitive financial documents.