News reports of malware and phishing are becoming a daily occurrence. Not too long ago, the entire school district in Cloquet, Minnesota closed due to a ransomware attack that shut down their entire computer network. But what does this mean? What are these things? How can I protect myself from them?
Malware is short for malevolent software. This software is designed to gain access or to damage a computer, website or system without the knowledge of the owner. There are many forms of malware out there and most of it is created for profit:
- Adware is software that automatically displays or downloads advertising material (often unwanted) when a user is online.
- Spyware is software that retrieves often sensitive information from your computer without your knowledge. This information may include your financial details, social security number or other information used in identity theft.
- Zombie computers are computers that have been unknowingly taken over by hackers and are used to spread malware or to conduct illegal activities.
- Ransomware is software that blocks access to a computer, system or website until a sum of money is paid to the hacker.
Phishing is when someone poses as a legitimate company in order to get an online user to divulge their login and/or account information. For example, you receive an email from your bank asking you to click their link and “verify” your account information. The victim clicks the link and provides the thief with a variety of sensitive personal details that may be used for identity theft or theft of personal goods and/or money.
“But this won’t happen to me,“ you say. Google reports that phishing sites increased over 150% last year. Malware sites increased over 160% in that last seven months of 2016 alone. In February 2016, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center was hit by a ransomware attack. The hospital paid approximately $17,000 to cyber thieves to regain access to their computer network, documents, and patient files. This trend is on the rise.
How do I protect myself from phishing?
The easiest way to keep from exposing your sensitive information to thieves and hackers is to not take the bait. If you receive an email asking you to verify your information, do not click the provided link. As the example shows above, the link goes somewhere totally different from where you think you going! Open a new browser window and go directly to a company’s website. You may also call the company using a phone number posted on a statement or bill. When questioning a credit card issue, the institution’s phone number is usually printed on the back of your card. Keep in mind the old adage “if it seems to good to be good, it usually isn’t.”
How do I protect myself from malware?
The difficulty with malware is its sly nature. Malware programs are written to be silent and undetectable. You have two options for protection: security software and firewalls.
- Security software is abundant. You may identify the names of leaders in this industry: Webroot, McAfee or AVG. Trial versions are often included with new computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Basic antivirus and anti-spyware software are available to download free from many reputable companies. This software scans your hard drives and eliminates programs that match current profiles of malware. Regardless of your security system, it is imperative that you allow it to update regularly with the new and expanded malware “definitions”.
- Firewalls are hardware- or software-based systems that control the actual traffic to and from your computer, network or website. Before any access is granted or information is exchanged with your system, the firewall evaluates the source much like a security guard protects an important person or official. Firewalls are most effective when protecting private computer networks and websites. Recently, we installed a software-based firewall on a client’s business website. Within the first hour, it had blocked over 80 attempts to break into the administration side of the website.
Yes. The internet can be a dangerous place. But with the correct safeguards on your digital devices, networks, and website, you may protect yourself and your assets from cyber attacks and thieves.