Living securely in a digital world

Anthony Giandomenico

Over the past several months the news has been full of reports about cyber criminals using malware to shut down devices or networks, steal data, or hold it for ransom. During the second quarter of 2017, more than 184 billion total exploits were documented. While most of these attacks targeted large, commercial networks, there has also been a large spike in such activities targeting the devices and data of individual users.

Some of these attacks, like having your Facebook page hijacked, are often used to collect the personal information of you or your online friends as part of an identity theft operation. At the same time, we have also seen an increase in malicious applications that mimic legitimate websites such as banks, healthcare providers or other online services. Such malware is designed to steal your personal or financial information.

Last quarter also saw the continued growth of ransomware attacks targeting hospitals or financial services organizations. But we have also seen huge growth in such attacks targeting individual users. Most ransomware attacks are delivered as a malicious file attached to an email. Once clicked on and activated, they can encrypt your hard drive and hold its data for ransom.

A new family of attacks has also begun to target the wide range of online devices in your home, such as gaming systems, smart TVs, digital security cameras, and even smart appliances that connect to the internet through your home WiFi system. Cyberattackers target a wide range of known vulnerabilities in these devices in order to control them remotely, collect your data, or install malicious code that allows attackers to aggregate millions of similarly compromised devices into huge cyber weapons known as botnets. They are used to generate huge volumes of data traffic that can overwhelm and shut down targeted online organizations or cripple Internet traffic.

Of course, the big question many folks are asking is, “What can I do about this?” Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done. Here is a short list of four things you can do right now to make your home and online experience safer.

Control social media

Cyber criminals often set up fake pages or accounts and then request that you add them as a friend, hoping to steal data or trick you into clicking on links to infected sites. Always look at the home page of the person making the request. When was it set up? What year do they claim to have graduated from college or started their new job? Can you see photos of normal activity or does their page seem to mostly be of seemingly image database photographs? If the person making the request is someone you know, check to see if he or she has friends in common. Look at their vital information. If you still have doubts, contact them directly to see if they built a new page. If not, their account has been hijacked or duplicated.

Scrutinize online transactions

The first thing to remember is that banks will never initiate a request to verify your account or provide your login credentials. Such requests, either online or via email, can safely be ignored or deleted. If you do receive an email or a browser page with a link attached, always look at the URL (the web address) before you click it. It should start with a real address, such as “www.(yourbank).com”. Is the logo correct? How about the spelling and grammar? If you have any suspicions at all, log into the site directly or call your financial institution to ensure that the request is legitimate.

Inspect email

The most common way to get users to load malicious software or malware onto their systems is through an email attachment. Here’s the rule: NEVER click on an attachment or web link in an email from someone you don’t know, that you didn’t request, or that doesn’t seem entirely legitimate.

Update devices

This is important, but can also require the most work. It is advisable to make an inventory of the devices in your home that connect to the internet, including phones, TVs, security cameras, home routers and/or wireless access points. Next, query online for known vulnerabilities or patches to ensure these devices and applications are running the latest patches and the most current versions of their operating systems.

We are now living in a digital world, and cyber crime is part of that new reality. We have all learned to lock our cars, deadbolt our doors, look both ways before crossing the street and avoid dark alleyways and streets at night. It’s time to develop the same good habits as we navigate through our digital environment. Just as in the physical world, you can never be 100 percent safe, but if we all just exercised a bit more caution and imposed just a little more security on the tools and applications we use and develop, the digital world we live in would quickly become a whole lot safer.