Beef up your cyber security this month

Originally posted on clarionledger.com, 10/9/2015 and in print edition, 10/15/2015.

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20151015_C001_0 (1)

According to the Internet security firm Symantec, last year was a banner year for online thievery. A report issued by the company back in April found that more than 317 million new pieces of malware were created in 2014, which amounts to about a million per day. Cyber-criminals plied the Internet with a variety of methods to steal other people’s money and identities, using such tactics as “ransomware” (up 113 percent over 2013) and “crypto-ransom” attacks (up 4,000 percent).

“The criminals are getting better,” said Kevin Haley, director of security response at Symantec, in a statement published on NBC News. “Success breeds success and other criminals want to get into the game, so we need to step up our game in terms of protecting our information and keeping it safe.”

While terms such as “crypto-ransom” and “spear phishing” may be unknown to most people, they represent huge advances in the armaments available to cyber-criminals, and it’s obvious that most of us are woefully outgunned. It seems that much cybercrime these days takes the form of what amounts to digital extortion. In other words, criminals are saying, “I will destroy you online (or steal your money, or expose reputation-damaging information) if you don’t give me what I want.”

For evidence, we need only to go back a few weeks to the disastrous Ashley Madison breach, in which criminals exposed millions of people who had visited the online cheating site (and, in some cases, people who had never visited the site before). The result was loss of reputations, relationships and – most sadly – lives. Since we live so much of our lives online, cybercrime can take a very real and tragic toll.

Perhaps it’s good timing that October is Cyber Security Month. More than 200 governmental agencies, private companies and advocacy groups are using the month to focus on how people can reduce their risk to cyber-criminals. The effort is led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, along with the National Cyber Security Alliance.

For example, the American Bankers Association sent me some great tips recently, and asked that I pass them on to you. Here are a three; more are available on their site:

  • Keep your computers and mobile devices up to date. Having the latest security software, web browser, and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware, and other online threats. Turn on automatic updates so you receive the newest fixes as they become available.
  • Set strong passwords. A strong password is at least eight characters in length and includes a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.
  • Watch out for phishing scams. Phishing scams use fraudulent emails and websites to trick users into disclosing private account or login information. Do not click on links or open any attachments or pop-up screens from sources you are not familiar with.

Protecting yourself and your family against cybercrime requires a lot of thought and attention. And since most of us have a lot at stake, it’s worth making it a priority.

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