Ransomware attacks demonstrate security vulnerabilities

via Ransomware attacks demonstrate security vulnerabilities, clarionledger.com

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The recent ransomware attack has sent shock waves through the world’s data communities. The “WannaCry” attack began on May 12, quickly spreading to more than 250,000 computers in more than 150 countries across the globe. Some experts have linked the attack to North Korea, but it’s still being investigated.

Although brazen and record-setting in scope, this attack is just the latest in a long line of attacks that highlight the vulnerability of the data we use every day. Most of us remain oblivious to the millions of attacks that occur constantly, but this decades-long cyberwar shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

During the recent attack, users of infected computers received an email message that their computer’s data had been encrypted by a vicious “worm” and the only way to get it back was to pay a ransom of $300 in bitcoin currency. If the victim didn’t pay, the price would be doubled after three days, and then the data would be destroyed if payment didn’t come. Many users, frightened by the attack, paid up. The attack seemed to target largely Windows-based PCs.

According to many sources, the attack seemed to exploit primarily older computers, and those without recent security updates, or patches. “Any unpatched Windows computer is potentially susceptible to WannaCry,” noted cyber-security company Symantec. “Organizations are particularly at risk because of its ability to spread across networks and a number of organizations globally have been affected, the majority of which are in Europe. However individuals can also be affected.”

It’s clear that some security patches were effective in slowing the spread of the attack, highlighting the need to update your computer’s security on a regular basis. Most experts recommend that you update your Windows software on a regular basis and use a file encryption feature. Windows users can use BitLocker, which is built into Windows, while Apple users can use FileVault, built into the Mac Operating System.

Here are a few of Symantec’s other tips:

  • Keep your operating system and other software updated. Software updates will frequently include patches for newly discovered security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by ransomware attackers. You can set up automated backups, which will check for and install new updates on a regular basis at a time convenient for you.
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails. Don’t click on or open unexpected emails, Symantec advises, especially if they contain links and/or attachments. If you don’t recognize the sender, delete the message.
  • Don’t enable macros. Macros are programs that carry out certain tasks under specific conditions. “Be extremely wary of any Microsoft Office email attachment that advises you to enable macros to view its content. Unless you are absolutely sure that this is a genuine email from a trusted source, do not enable macros and instead immediately delete the email,” advises Symantec.
  • Backup your data. Performing regular backups to the “cloud,” external hard drive or other device can provide insurance against attacks. This will help protect you if your data is subject to attack by allowing you to restore your files once the infection has been stopped. However, be sure the backup method you use has adequate protection, and preferably is not easily accessible to thieves. For example, using an external hard drive that’s physically connected to your device and that doesn’t require a password is little better than having no backup at all.

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.

Mississippi ties to international cybercrime bust

via Moak: Mississippi ties to international cybercrime bust on clarionledger.com

Every day, thousands of people around the globe are victimized by nameless, faceless criminals hiding behind computer screens. In the wild west of global telecommunications, it’s surprisingly easy to pluck money from unsuspecting people via the Internet.

Most of the time, the money is gone and unrecoverable down a vast international black hole, the perpetrators never found (much less, prosecuted). International laws make it difficult — if not impossible — to investigate these crimes and bring the crooks to justice. Often, they originate in poor countries such as Nigeria, where organized crime organizations have learned there’s lots of money to be made by luring the unsuspecting.

But last week, there was finally some good news, and it happened right here in the Magnolia State. The Department of Justice announced the extradition of six Nigerian nationals from South Africa to Mississippi to face a nine-count federal indictment for various Internet frauds. These six people join 15 others who were previously charged with, among other things, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, identity theft and money laundering.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi made the announcement.

Oladimeji Seun Ayelotan, 30; Rasaq Aderoju Raheem, 31; Olusegun Seyi Shonekan, 33; Taofeeq Olamilekan Oyelade, 30; Olufemi Obaro Omoraka, 26; and Anuoluwapo Segun Adegbemigun, 39, are charged along with 15 others. Of those, three have already been convicted, six are awaiting trial, and the U.S. government is seeking the extradition of four other Nigerians. Two others remain fugitives.

The scammers were allegedly carrying out several varieties of the scheme, including online-dating cons, bogus work-at-home opportunities and “reshipping” plots. “In some cases, they carried on so-called “romantic” relationships with their targets, trying to get their victims to do things like re-ship merchandise purchased with stolen credit cards, deposit counterfeit checks and send money to the defendants — whether via wiring money or sending prepaid debit cards,” the DOJ noted in a news release last week.

As far back as 2001, according to the indictment, the group “identified and solicited potential victims through online dating websites and work-at-home opportunities.” For example, the indictment alleges the defendants convinced victims to ship and receive merchandise purchased with stolen personal identifying information and compromised credit card and banking information, to deposit counterfeit checks, and to transfer proceeds of the conspiracy via wire, U.S. mail or express delivery services.

This case is a stark reminder of just how complex it can be to bring alleged criminals to justice. The DOJ news release thanked no less than 12 separate agencies for their help, including several federal agencies such as the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations units and U.S. Marshals Service, four agencies in South Africa, and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Mississippi.

Since the case is still developing, you may have something to contribute if you’ve been a victim of one of these scams. The Federal Trade Commission’s Lois Greisman, in a recent blog post, encouraged people to visit the DOJ’s announcement at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/six-nigerian-nationals-extradited-south-africa-mississippi-face-fraud-charges, because it contains a list of names and email addresses used in the scheme. If you have something to contribute, contact information is included. Your input could help put these people away for a long time.

Meanwhile, congratulations are in order for the hard-working folks who spend their days and nights trying to root out those who would do us harm. Law enforcement investigation isn’t glamorous, action-filled or in the spotlight; often, it’s usually just day after day of poring over financial records, phone calls and Internet chat rooms, as they put the pieces together and bring criminals to justice. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

“Hi! How are you?” could open Pandora’s Box

Published in the Clarion-Ledger on March 25, 2015.

PDF:Hi How are you

Yesterday, I was looking through my inbox and I noticed a couple of messages, from people I knew. Both had been flagged as spam by Gmail, and started, “Hi! How are you?” If experience has taught me anything, it’s to be suspicious of emails that begin this way, so my next step was to move them to the trash folder and delete them. But before I did, I looked at the message previews and noticed that the subject line included gems such as “Have you seen this?”, and referencing Oprah.

Fortunately for me, Gmail is pretty good at spotting these; most never actually make it into your inbox at all. But many people click on these messages every day, unwittingly opening the door to potential victimization. Once you open a message like this, it’s like you’ve thrown open the front door of your house; every dog, cat and crook can come in and look around. Often, clicking starts an upload of spyware or malware, which can not only let others see what’s on your computer, they can in some cases actually destroy or hijack your information and hold it for ransom (ransomware).

And on the other side of the equation is your friend, who probably doesn’t know this even occurred. In many cases, their account has probably not actually been “hacked”; scammers can find their names and email addresses, making it look like it’s from them (spoofing). Still, the damage has been done with the first click. Hacking your account is a form of identity theft. A crook somewhere is using your friend’s good name to get past your natural skepticism by using the name of somebody you probably know and trust.

So, how do you know? How can you tell if your account has been hacked?

The folks at onguardonline.gov (a combined effort among at least 16 federal agencies to help combat online crime) suggest that the following may be red flags that your email has been hacked:

  • Friends and family are getting emails or messages you didn’t send.
  • Your “Sent messages” folder has messages you didn’t send, or it has been emptied.
  • Your social media accounts have posts you didn’t make.
  • You can’t log into your email or social media account.

In addition, if your device was lost, stolen or part of a known data breach incident, you may need to take some steps. The National Cyber Security Alliance, on its website Staysafeonline.org, has these tips for dealing with hacked accounts:

Notify your contacts that they may receive spam messages that appear to come from your account and tell them not to open messages of click on any links from your account.

Update your security software, and run a scan for malware.

Change your passwords on all your online accounts. Passwords should be strong, not easily guessed, and unique to each account.

Also, it’s a good idea to contact the help desk at your email provider, to report the problem and get advice on how to proceed.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve seen is to minimize your risk of being hacked in the first place. Use a solid, well-known security software, and keep it up to date. Set it to automatically update on a regular basis. Many experts recommend not using public computers at all, but if you have to, obtain a separate email address only for those usages. And above all, be skeptical and trust your instincts. They’re often proved to be right.

AG warns about inappropriate Instagram posts targeting young women

A recent rise in incidents of posting inappropriate photos online has gotten the attention of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who today warned parents and would-be perpetrators about “an alarming trend of improper and illegal internet posts, particularly on the popular social networking site Instagram”. Hood’s office released a statement today warning that the activity is illegal and dangerous.

“Our cyber crime unit has  received numerous complaints of false Instagram accounts being created specifically to post inappropriate pictures of local young ladies with the purpose of making derogatory comments about them,” Hood said.  “The message for anyone doing this is that are penalties for posting sexually explicit photos of minors and for bullying or harassing behavior”.

“Some potential charges a person could face by posting sexually explicit photos of minors or threatening language,” noted the release, “could include child exploitation, distribution/possession of child pornography, sexting and cyber bullying.  Some examples of cyberbullying include setting up a profile pretending to be someone else, hacking into someone’s social networking profile, posting photos of someone online without his or her permission, harassing someone through electronic means, electronically sending embarrassing photos or messages with people other than the intended recipient and writing harmful information or lies on a website.”

Recently, officials in Louisville, Ky. were investigating the use of Instagram to post inappropriate photos of girls.

To help us understand and use Instagram properly, there are many resources for tips, including the A.G.’s website. The parents’ site Yoursphere for Parents has some good information and advice for Instagram, and how to handle inappropriate usage.

Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 1/21/14.)

Stop, Think, Connect to help stop cyber crime

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, and a host of federal, state and local government and private organizations are focusing on how to keep ourselves safe online.

On Wednesday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood issued a news release, reminding Mississippians to be aware of cyber crime. “Internet crime in Mississippi can range from child pornography or exploitation to identity theft, email phishing scams or illegal downloads,” Hood warned. “It is most imperative that we keep a close eye on what our children are doing online.”

According to statistics from Stop, Think, Connect, a cyber security working group, Americans are becoming more aware of cyber security.

  • 96% of Americans feel a personal responsibility to be safer and more secure online
  • 93% believe their online actions can protect not only friends and family but also help to make the Web safer for everyone around the world.
  • 61% believe that much of online safety and security falls under their personal control, and consistent with those feelings, 90% said they want to learn more about keeping safer on the Internet.
  • 48% feel their actions to stay safe and secure can have a positive impact on financial, economic, and national security of the country, indicating Americans are open to making the bridge between their own safety and the nation’s security.
  • Concern about identity theft rates slightly higher than fears of job and healthcare loss. 54% of Americans are extremely concerned about loss of personal or financial information. To place this is in context, 53% are concerned about losing their jobs, while 51% feared not being able to provide healthcare for their family.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the American public have heard, read or seen something about online safety and security issues recently. However, most of what the news they remember is negative: identity theft, privacy loss, and increased frequency of attacks.
  • When asked why they don’t always do all the things they can or should do to stay safer online, Americans said they simply lacked the information or knowledge (28%) – a surprising finding that surpassed other hurdles often cited by the media. Only 12% said online safety was too expensive, while just 5% said they were too busy to take the extra step.

Here are a few tips from Hood’s office to help parents keep their kids safe.

  • Talk to your child about their activities online and caution them not to share certain information over the internet.
  • Be familiar with popular chat rooms or social networking sites such as Facebook and always maintain access to your child’s online account.
  • Teach your child the responsible use of the resources on-line and show them how to delete and/or block harmful e-mails, photos or messages.
  • Keep computers in a common room in the house, not in your child’s bedroom, and consider instituting a “media curfew” limiting the time they can use the computer or internet.
  • Report abuses or threats to the Attorney General’s office and your Internet Service Provider.

If you need to report a cyber crime, call the Attorney General’s Cyber Crime Unit at 601-576-4281. Anyone who feels they have been targeted for identity theft or any other general scams, can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-281-4418. For more information on cyber crimes and consumer scams, or to fill out a complaint form, visit http://www.agjimhood.com.

Online safety: protecting your kids

Originally published on clarionledger.com on 8/26/2013

PDF: Online safety – protecting your kids

With school just having started across the country, a lot of kids are meeting new friends, discovering new things, and using new technologies. It’s an exciting time, full of rich possibilities. Many schools have embraced technology, and many are including Internetbased tools and services to help teach. Some schools are already replacing traditional textbooks with tablet computers and websites.

But with all of the good that’s done by technology such as the Internet, there are also a lot of bad things as well. The Internet is a virtual Wild Wild West, where just about anything is possible. In recent years, problems such as cyber bullying, “sexting” (sending inappropriate photos via text messaging) and online sexual predation have exploded onto the scene.As a parent, I sometimes find it seems overwhelming. But, just as with protecting your kids from other types of crime, your best ally is information.

Among those fighting to catch the bad guys and help stop cybercrime is AttorneyGeneral Jim Hood and his staff of investigators. In the 9 1/2 years of Hood’s tenure in the office, stopping cybercrime has become a major part of his work.

I sent him some questions, and here I’ve summarized some of his responses.

Social networking can lead to dangers. Hood noted that the biggest threat to kids is rooted in the explosive growth of social networking, which provides avenues for threats like cyber bullying to exploitation of kids. “The inherent dangers are that children tend to overshare information on these sites and accept friends or chat with people they have only distant links to,” he said. “The Internet is a forum where people are not always whom they present themselves to be. Today’s technology allows people to see your real time location, which makes kids more vulnerable to potentially being located by someone up to no good.”

Photos can reveal location clues. Posting of photos can allow predators to get clues to the child’s location. “You have to consider that allowing your kids to roam the Internet with no boundaries is very similar to letting them loose on the street or leaving the front door of your house wide open,” he said.

Parents need to be involved. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of parents in protecting your kids, Hood noted. That may mean being nosy. “Parental involvement is key,” he insists. “Don’t let technology get in the way of your interaction with your kids. If your kids are using Instagram, you should use Instagram and learn about it. Have discussions with your children about the good and the bad on the internet.”

There have been many cases in recent years of “cyber bullying”, the practice of using the Internet to harass, threaten or intimidate peers. In some tragic cases, suicide or other types of violence have resulted.

“Caution your children not to share certain information over the Internet,” he said, and teach your children not to react or retaliate to cyber bullying.”

Other tips include showing your kids how to delete and/or block harmful messages before they read them, teaching them about respect and privacy and about the consequences of cyber bullying, and report abuses or threats to the Attorney General’s office and your Internet Service Provider.

Security begins at home. How can parents know if their kids are seeing things they shouldn’t? “Check your internet history logs,” advised Hood. “Place computers in — and restrict use to — general open view areas in your home. Look for warning signs such as closing the lid on the laptop when you come in or putting the phone away quickly.”

Finally, I asked Hood whether he believes parents are generally naive when it comes to policing their kids on the Internet.

“This is more of an education issue,” he said. “Parents who have become familiar with the technology are comfortable discussing issues about the internet with their children. Parents who don’t understand tend to distance themselves and do tend to be more naive about what their kids are doing on the internet. The more we educate parents about the dangers and the benefits of the internet the more we can prevent cyber crimes related to children.”

Here are a few other resources to help protect your kids:

  • Cyber-safety brochures are available at the Attorney General’s website at http://www.agjimhood.com.
  • Netcetera is a really good comprehensive resource, posted by the Federal Trade Commission, about keeping your kids safe online.
  • Cyberbully411 is a resource site specifically designed to provide resource related to the growing threat of cyberbullying. Safekids has good general information about the topic.