Over the last few years it has become apparent that the range of handheld devices and services designed to bring convenience and flexibility to our everyday lives can also yield opportunities for malicious users to intercept data, potentially resulting in identity theft, fraud and access to sensitive information.

It’s more important than ever for modern consumers to be aware of the threats that exist, and with 2012 set to expand remote access and control even further, I encourage users to stay one step ahead of malicious parties by highlighting the sorts of threats we can expect to encounter.

I see 5 key areas that are likely targets for internet criminals in 2012:

  1.  The Cloud

Bringing with it the promise of remote data access, backup and storage for your files, cloud computing has now become mainstream and is essential to the future development of mobile services and support. Unfortunately it also brings with it the hidden dangers of malicious users accessing your data without permission.

In 2011 we’ve seen high-profile examples of security being breached when hackers gained access to sensitive data of 77 million subscribers to the Sony Playstation network, and since then researchers have shown just how easy it can be to crack Wi-Fi passwords with the right equipment to gain access to data as it is being transmitted.

It is the responsibility of the service provider to produce a safe, secure environment on which data can be stored, but those concerned about security would do well to avoid leaving any sensitive information, such as credit card or bank account details, in the “cloud”.

  1.  QR Codes

These square, barcode-type images are popping up with increasing regularity, and are likely to see more mainstream use in 2012. Designed to offer quick access to software, websites or services by scanning the code with a phone’s camera, the downside of the speed and convenience on offer is that they could become a prime target for hackers.

It would be relatively easy to direct a phone towards a malicious website or application, which could then encourage the entry of sensitive data to proceed or start a download of malicious software that could infect a phone to track its location, send SMS messages to premium rate numbers, or reveal credit card or bank account information. It’s vital that users are aware of the service they’re accessing and only attempt to scan a QR code provided by a legitimate and trusted source.

  1.  Internet-connected TVs

With over 40 million internet-accessible TVs shipped worldwide in 2010, and this number set to grow to 118 million by 2014, it seems likely that these multi-functional sets will become commonplace in the near future. What many consumers may not consider is the potential security issues surrounding their use.

In 2011 researchers demonstrated how it was possible to gain control over a television to limit its functionality, access sensitive information such as credit card details, or carry out “phishing” attempts by encouraging users to enter personal data into an online form. The A/V industry has been relatively slow at recognising the importance of security so it’s important that consumers are aware of the threat, and again avoid entering or storing any sensitive data where possible.

  1.  Smartphones and tablets

2011 saw a number of instances of security issues across most mobile platforms, from apps infected with malware to Wi-Fi hacking and theft. 2012 is likely to see a continued threat to Smartphone and connected tablet users as hackers look to exploit their growing popularity.

The increase in social media activity and desire to always be connected leaves many users storing a range of sensitive data on handhelds, all of which could be accessible to malicious parties if not properly protected. Consumers should remain vigilant about what sort of data they choose to store or share from a mobile, and investing in a dedicated security suite can help protect against an ever-evolving range of threats.

  1.  Windows 8

For the first time, Windows will come bundled with anti-virus and a firewall when version 8 hits the shelves in 2012. While this will mean that everybody has a degree of protection as standard, the downside is that these tools may not be as effective as dedicated security suites, and may not offer comparable protection. Additionally, if a significant proportion of users rely on Microsoft’s solution this could make it a prime target for hackers looking to circumvent security – never underestimate the effectiveness of a dedicated suite from an experienced vendor.

So should these security issues cause concern for users in 2012? “Yes” and “no”. There’s no doubt that recent and future developments designed to bring our technology into the modern age brings with it a range of exciting benefits and conveniences to the consumer, but we urge people to remain vigilant and consider the potential threats that may emerge.

Entering sensitive data such as credit card details or bank information into a device capable of accessing the internet, and in the case of loss or theft even those that aren’t, is something everyone should be wary of. Of course this can’t always be avoided, in which case professional security software should be considered, which will offer significant protection. With this in place consumers will have peace of mind that both they and their data are being safeguarded against malicious users.

I encourage all consumers to use a combination of common sense and a regularly updated security suite when using a laptop, smartphone or any other “online” device to protect against internet crime. Most security suites check all incoming data regardless of whether it comes from e-mails, websites or if a malicious link is accidentally triggered on Facebook or via a QR code.

If in doubt about the sincerity of an e-mail or other request for personal information, I encourage you to ignore it or contact the company in question, or your security company directly for further assistance.