Don't invite a digital con artist into your computer

The digital world is experiencing an upward trend of nefarious activity utilizing malicious software called "ransomware." As the first half of the name implies, ransomware takes your computer's data hostage and demands a ransom in “bitcoins,” an untraceable internet-based payment system. (We’ll demystify bitcoins in a future issue).

Ransomware renders your data unreadable, and thus useless, until you pay the ransom. Non-payment means you lose your data forever (unless you have an uncompromised backup).

Individuals and organizations, including society’s lifeline services such as hospitals and police departments, have fallen victim to ransomware attacks. Numbers reported by the media are probably on the lower estimate as some victims may just pay the ransom and never report it to authorities. NBC News reports that last year more than 2,500 ransomware attacks were reported to the FBI, costing victims $24 million. The amount of reported damages skyrocketed to $209 million in just the first 3 months of this year.

For malwares and viruses to inflict damage, the perpetrators have to first get them into your computer. In most cases they can't just get them into your computer unless your computer was already compromised from an earlier incident.

In other words you have to explicitly "invite" them into your computer, just like inviting a con artist into your house, for the perpetrators to extort money or inflict other damages.

Email may be an old communication tool in the digital world but it is still the preferred vehicle for nefarious entities to distribute their scams efficiently, expeditiously and to large numbers of potential victims.

Just as a real-world con artists may try to persuade you to “invest in a deal of your lifetime,” these email messages with virus-laced attachments, or links to malicious websites, will be accompanied by message bodies that entice the recipients to open the attachment or click on the link.

Here are some healthy email habits that will help minimize the risk of being victimized:

  • Don’t open unsolicited emails or messages from senders you don’t recognize.

  • Don’t participate in chain email.

  • Don’t be click happy (i.e. don’t click on every link you receive).

  • Be wary of financial institutions asking for account information via email. Banks do not communicate important matters through email; instead they will direct you to log into your online account’s message center at their official website.

  • Look out for “phishing” attempts, where the perps try to acquire personal information such as user ID and passwords. Rather than clicking on the provided link to get to the login page, open a browser and type in the website address manually.
  • If a deal is too good to be true, it most probably is. Delete the message without clicking on the links.

These additional measures are recommended to protect you in case you make a mistake: (1) subscribe to anti-virus and anti-malware software; (2) apply application, system and security patches regularly as prescribed by the manufacturer of hardware and software.

Finally, always remember that the gray matter between your ears is the single most powerful tool you possess, as it is where good habits are cultivated.

Tak Sato

Technology and Business Strategist with over 25 years of experience. Holds Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Science and MBA from Cleveland State University.

As co-founder of geek with a heart with the service mark "Hand-holding You in the Digital World" and co-founder of Center for Aging in the Digital World, a nonprofit empowering seniors through technology, Tak helps people utilize appropriate technology in their personal and professional lives.

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 9:44 AM, 05.03.2016