Most of you know that I do not recommend using certain “freemail” accounts for any aspect of your professional lives. In short, many of them are poorly supported, barely secured and frequently targeted by cybercriminals because of these elements and because of who uses them. The ones that are being heavily targeted now are mostly legacy accounts that were established by old ISP companies that have since merged, sold or otherwise transformed into another company. Examples include sbcglobal.net, att.net, roadrunner.net, aol.com, yahoo.com, earthlink.net, etc, but they all share a common aspect: responsibility for maintaining the services that power these emails has been passed from company to company like a red-headed stepchild and the services are clearly suffering from neglect.
I’ve had this email for years! I can’t change this email!!
Invariably, we’re going to have this conversation, with you or perhaps with an elder member of your family. And yes, for some folks, changing an email address that you’ve had for 10+ years is going to be a huge pain. There are alternatives to completely abandoning the account, but there is still going to be some work to keep it, you and your loved ones safe. It depends highly on the email service, but most of them have made token efforts to upgrade their security and accessibility. Log into the account, look for account settings, specifically security to see if any of the following are available:
- First and foremost, if they offer multi-factor/2-factor authentication, set it up and use it. This is a no-brainer, and just about everyone has a cell phone.
- Set up a backup email account – most email services offer the ability to set another email account as a way to rescue or recover a forgotten password.
- Even if they can’t do 2-factor, some freemail services let you attach a cellphone for recovery purposes. Support personnel (if/when you can actually reach them) can use the cellphone to verify you are the proper owner of the account when you are in the process of attempting to recover access.
- Check to see if the password to secure this account has been compromised using this website: https://haveibeenpwned.com/Passwords. Even if it hasn’t, if it’s an easy to guess password, change it and write it down if it’s not one you or they are going to easily remember.
In the end, these are only stop-gap measures. Some email domains are currently on their 4th or 5th handoff, and at a certain point they are likely going to end up with the lowest bidder – something you never want for a critical technology service like email. Your eye should be on transitioning to a more sustainable platform like Gmail or Outlook.com.
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Though the numbers are dwindling rapidly, there are still plenty of working professionals who have spent more time working without email than with. And now there is a growing labor pool for whom email is seen as yesterday’s technology (they are not wrong!) and probably do not place as much relevance into it as the majority of the world’s current knowledge workers do. Like it or not, email is still a pillar of the world’s work processes, and now that criminals have settled into their “groove” exploiting it, there can be no exceptions to taking email security seriously.
Your email service should be robust and secure
Rather than tapering off like many other types of cyber-attacks, email hacking continues to grow in frequency, sophistication and damage impact. For most folks, as we have frequently said in the past, getting hacked is not a question of “if” but of “when”, but there are ways to keep your email secure. Can it be made perfectly secure? No, but you will greatly improve your chances of fending off an attack when it eventually comes.
- Your email should be professionally hosted by a company that keeps its infrastructure up to date, continually monitors security and can provide human-based support to its customers. Most free-mail platforms can’t/don’t do this, and it follows that your organization should not rely on free-mail services.
- You should have 2-factor authentication enabled for your email accounts. Not having it on is now considered a huge security liability. Not only will it result in your account getting hacked, it may disqualify you from being insured. If I had to guess where we are headed in terms of cyber-liability coverage, I would say we are maybe only a year or two from it being a requirement with no exceptions.
- You need 3rd party email filtering. Even the big boys in email hosting (Microsoft and Google) only go so far with their email filtering. While their baseline capabilities are still light-years ahead of the free-mail platforms (and free versions of their own services), its increasingly obvious that their focus is on the core technology of delivering email and securing your accounts, leaving spam and malware detection to companies that focus only on that.
- If you send confidential data through email, it must be encrypted. This isn’t just good security practice, this is actually the law in some cases especially where it comes to PII, medical and financial information, but email encryption is not something that most email services come with “out of the box” and must be added on through additional configuration or even separate vendors. This is another area that is already being used to determine your organization’s insurability.
- Strongly consider email backup services. Most folks store a ton of information in their email boxes and take for granted that because it’s hosted “in the cloud” that they don’t need to back it up. While it may be possible to have your email provider restore accidentally (or purposefully!) deleted emails, if you don’t notice in time (usually 30 days or less) that email is gone forever. Email backups are extremely affordable and literally require zero-attention from you, just a watchful eye by your IT professional.
Image by CrafCraf from Pixabay
You may not realize it, but your organization is probably using one or more free email accounts from platforms like Google and Microsoft. Smaller companies may still be using them as their primary email accounts (let’s talk – you need to stop doing that!), but most have moved up to what we call “enterprise-grade” versions from the same providers. Despite upgrading their email to the more secure, paid services, many companies opt to continue using free-mail accounts for various applications like email copier scanning, Quickbooks invoicing, and automation systems that send out email alerts. In the case of the latter two, not having this functionality could result in some pain or even safety concerns.
What did you do, Google?
I looked back at my long-standing free Gmail account to see if Google sent any notifications out about this change. I don’t see anything in an email, but it’s likely they posted on-screen notices in their webmail interface, which I rarely see as I use Outlook or my phone to view email for this particular account, so I’m going to say this was a stealth change. What changed? They removed the “less secure apps” feature on May 30th of this year. Unless you are a Gmail aficionado or in IT, you probably aren’t going to know what this does, or how it impacts you now that it’s gone. In a nutshell, it allowed you to use your Gmail account with applications that Google considers “less secure” – including Outlook (a little rivalry shade or legit concern?) and more importantly, any device or service that uses SMTP delivery to send emails via their servers, such as your multi-function copier when you scan to email, or your building automation alarms that send emails to engineers or security that there is a leak or a door propped open. If you suddenly find that something that was previously Gmail-powered has stopped sending emails, it’s probably because you were using the less secure apps feature to do so.
How do you fix this?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as turning that feature back on – Google has removed it completely. Now you will have to set up an “app password” for your service or function to use. As the name would imply, app passwords are passwords that are set up for a specific application and only that application. You can have multiple app passwords for your email account, and they aren’t recoverable or resettable if you happen to lose them. That’s OK because they can be re-created easily and without additional cost (except for your time) as long as you can log into your Gmail account using your main password. However, in order to enable the app password feature, you have to set up 2-Factor Authentication for your account, and before you think of jumping ship to Microsoft’s Outlook.com free-mail service, they are doing the same thing – requiring 2-factor authentication before you can set up app-specific passwords. You can thank the hackers and spammers for this – they have been abusing free-mail accounts for years and finally the big boys are doing something about it by locking down exploited features of free-mail accounts, but rest unassured – this will only slow them down, and create minor headaches for everyone else. Get used to it – two factor isn’t going away anytime soon.
Given how complicated it was to set up organizational email services in the previous decade, today’s self-service offerings from Microsoft and Google have significantly eased the process of setting up email for your-company.com with an affordable, highly-reliable and relatively secure provider. It literally takes a handful of minutes (if you know what you are doing) to go from zero to email, but there are still plenty of gotchas that can render your new service less than perfect. If your recipients keep finding your emails in their junk folder, it’s possibly worse than not having email service at all. It would be impossible for me to outline all the ways in which this may happen, but there is a common gotcha you might want to investigate.
SPF? Is my email getting sunburnt?
Recently several of our clients have had problems with email delivery caused by incorrect SPF records. In this case, SPF is an acronym for “Sender Policy Framework” and not “Sun Protection Factor”, but much like forgetting the sunscreen on your day outside, not having proper email SPF will result in you getting “burned” as your emails are marked as spam by your recipient’s email servers. Without getting into the bloody details, the Sender Policy Framework is one way email servers use to verify the sender is who they say they are, “Is this email actually from C2, or is someone spoofing the sending email address?” While spoofers can fake your email address, they can’t typically change your SPF record (if they can, you have much bigger problems), so it’s a reliable source of verification if it’s set properly!
Here’s how you will know your email is getting marked as spam for having an improper SPF record. From your company’s account, send an email to an outside email address that you have ready access to, such as a personal Gmail or Yahoo account. You will need to check the headers on that email for SPF failures – the formatting and verbiage you need to look for in the headers will vary depending on the recipient’s email provider, but Google returns failures that look like this:
Received-SPF: softfail (google.com: domain of transitioning email@example.com does not designate ##.##.109.66 as permitted sender) client-ip=##.##.109.66;
dkim=pass firstname.lastname@example.org header.s=20210112 header.b=TJLH3iac;
spf=softfail (google.com: domain of transitioning email@example.com does not designate ##.##.109.66 as permitted sender) firstname.lastname@example.org
If you find “Fail” anywhere in the header, that email will likely get marked as spam and will end up in Junk or Spam folders rather than the inbox. Now how does something like this happen? If you’ve gone through your providers guided setup process, or had email set up by someone like C2, your SPF records will be set properly, but if you recently made changes that might alter your DNS (like a website redesign!) or engaged a new cloud service that sends emails on your company’s behalf, you may need to check your SPF record to ensure it is set properly. You can check your current SPF record using a free tool at MXToolbox.com (not a sponsor, we just like the tools), but unless you are well-versed in DNS and domains, you may not be able to easily interpret the results. Either way, if your emails are getting delivered to spam regardless of your recipient’s whitelisting efforts, an incorrect SPF record may be the culprit and should be addressed as soon as possible!
Image by CrafCraf from Pixabay
I tried to think up an appropriate bon mot about a platform like Craigslist getting hacked based upon how old and basic the platform is in comparison to “modern” services, but frankly, their easy-to-use and barebones approach strikes me as a rare unicorn in a world full of apps that (try to) do everything, or ones that do one thing in an overly complicated/cutesy/outlandish fashion to stand out in the crowded field. If anything, you may take my soft spot for Craigslist as an oblique self-burn on my age and get-off-my-lawn attitude about modern apps, but given the amount of troubleshooting I do on its contemporaries, barebones and utilitarian gets it done without a whole lot of fanfare and confusion. Sadly, like all things internet, this has a double-edge: hackers have taken advantage of one of Craigslist’s signature features – anonymous emails – to trick users into installing malware.
What this means for you
If you use Craigslist to offer something up – goods, services, your heart, etc. – you will want to pay attention. Craigslist uses a form of anonymized emails that allow users to keep their identity confidential until they decide they want to interact with someone answering their ad. Unfortunately, this also means an email arriving from an anonymized Craigslist email address claiming to be an official warning about an “inappropriate” ad is probably going to be taken seriously, and links contained in said email will likely be clicked, leading to a malware infection instead of an actual, legitimate Craigslist URL.
Attackers are using camouflage provided by a trusted, familiar environment that they 100% know their target is engaged with, combined with a malware delivery through OneDrive to give them additional cover against the usual malware detection provided by mail services that can smell bad URLs. Even with good malware protection installed on your computer, clicking and opening a document and then following the familiar process to allow editing of the document – something that occurs everytime when opening Office documents delivered via email or the internet (aka OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.), will bypass the usual protections and deliver a malware payload essentially because you allowed it.
This is what you are up against. This is what we all are up against. There is no good protection against this type of chicanery other than being savvy and vigilant, having up to date malware protection installed, backing up your data, and using unique passwords and two-factor authentication wherever possible. There is rarely an instance where the holy trinity of malware protection, backups and strong authentication practices is not warranted. Don’t make excuses – these three things will be your safety net when your vigilance wavers. We are all human and we can and will be tricked. That is one thing I can guarantee.
Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Warning: this article will melt your brain. Consume in small portions and rest frequently. Or skip to the end for the simple advice.
In the not so distant past of technology, the account name you used to access your service or software was usually a single word. Sometimes it was your name, or some variation of first initial and last name, or it was something you got to choose like “soccermom72” or “sunnysdad” or “bruins4ever” etc. As online services grew in popularity and the number of people needing accounts exploded, most service providers realized they no longer needed you to pick a name (and suffer through finding one that wasn’t already taken) as you were already providing them with a unique identifier, so they got rid of all the “catmom2013” ID’s in favor of using your email address. From a technical perspective, this makes perfect sense, but for many users, this can lead to confusion and frustration if you aren’t keeping careful track of your passwords, or worse, using the same password for everything.
When an email address is more than just an email address
Microsoft, Apple and Google are the primary causes of email-as-account-name confusion, especially if you’ve created an account with those services using an email address that has nothing to do with any of those providers. For example, when setting up a new Windows computer, one of the first things it does is ask if you have a Microsoft account, and if you don’t (or think you don’t) it asks you to put in your email address and it will create one for you. So you put in your email address that you’ve had for years (something-at-aol-dot-com?) and the set up process has you create a password for this new account. Many people misread this prompt as “enter your current email” password, and don’t realize Windows is actually asking you to create a new password for your new Microsoft account, but also, typing in your email password (Twice? Why is it asking me to enter it twice?) works, because as far as Microsoft is concerned, your current email password will also work as your new Microsoft password. Do you see where this is going?
So now you’ve got a new Microsoft account that uses your email address and password as the login. “Convenient,” you think. “One less password to remember.” Until you need to change your email password because maybe it got hacked, or your IT consultant warned you to stop using it. Whatever, you’ve changed your email password. Then you go to log into your Windows computer, which is using that same password, right? Wait. Why isn’t this new password working? I just changed it and I know I wrote it down correctly! OK, I’ll try the old one. Why is that working? But the old password doesn’t work for my email now? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!
For most folks that don’t daily marinate their brains in technology, it’s a common mistake to think that using your email address for an account name confers global login capabilities to your services with your email address and password. It does if you use the same password and never change it, but the moment any of the services insist on a password change, confusion is imminent. And here’s something that will really bake your noodle: if you set it up right, your email credentials can actually do this with a lot of services and keep in sync with password changes! But it has to be a certain type of email address (Microsoft, Google or Apple powered) and the services all have to have that capability (usually labeled as “login with your XXXX account”). This was a very popular authentication method in the early 20-teens, but once major password leaks started occurring, more services were shying away from “single sign-on” as folks were having their entire online lives stolen with a single password. In reality, most people will have a mixture of single sign-on services and regular logins, all using their email address as the login name. And if they don’t make a point of recording passwords used with particular services (especially if those services don’t ask for passwords often), human memory will just mash all of it together under “email address and this password.” Even writing it down is confusing sometimes, especially if you look back later at your notes and see the following, “Microsoft account uses Gmail address and this password,” or “Google account uses my AOL email address as login.” Wait, my email doesn’t come from Google, it comes from AOL, doesn’t it?!?
What’s the solution to this madness? Password trackers and unique passwords, and understanding that just because an account is using your email address as a login, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s using the same password. In fact, if you are “doing it right”, nothing should have the same password unless you are using a collection of services that are designed specifically to authenticate against email services that provide single sign-on capabilities. Still confused? You are in good company. Just take good notes, track your passwords, and make sure you have C2 on speed dial when things get weird.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Nearly two years ago I wrote a three–part article about taming the most ferocious of virtual beasts: your email. Even though I know all of you fight the good fight on a daily basis, some of you are your own worst enemies, multiplying your load by maintaining more than two mailboxes (personal and work) on top of your regular social media addictions. I’m not talking about the folks whose work responsibility includes managing mailboxes for other people (but I feel for you, especially the ones that face 5-digit unread counts). If you aren’t in the fortunate position of having human help to manage your collection of mailboxes, you should really consider consolidating or outright deleting those old email accounts.
Sacrilege! Burn the witch!
Before you go all angry mob on me, here’s why you should slim up your email presence by ditching seldom-used email boxes.
Security – there are so many reasons why managing multiple mailboxes is a security nightmare, but here are 3 that should resonate with you:
- Remembering and maintaining passwords for all your mailboxes. You’re using strong passwords for all of them, right?!?
- Old email accounts are a treasure trove of identity info for data thieves. If you don’t check them often, they might even be compromised already, and may have been for months or even years.
- Every email address gets spam and malware. Multiply your risk by the number of mailboxes that receive email. Multiply by 2 for “free” email accounts that have poor or no spam filters.
Expense – each mailbox is another mouth to feed. Even the free mailboxes aren’t really free:
- What’s your time worth? If you spend 15 minutes a day managing a mailbox, you will spend nearly 8 hours a month that could be better spent elsewhere.
- If you are using your phone to check these email boxes, that data downloaded is costing you, especially the spam – it’s the digital equivalent of empty calories, but the only thing getting fat is your mobile carrier’s bank account.
- Get infected by malware from a poorly protected email account? A minor malware cleanup will cost you a minimum of $200-300 if handled by a firm like C2, and we haven’t even accounted for your lost time, productivity or sales. We won’t speak about network-wide infections – those costs can start piling up into really big numbers, even if you are insured and backed up.
Next week we talk strategies for thinning the email herd!
Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The good ship Yahoo is still battling troubled waters on its journey to the safe harbor of a Verizon purchase. Reuters has just released a massive bombshell that may blockade if not outright scuttle the $4.8bln deal: two former employees of the beleagured media company have alleged that Yahoo complied with a classified directive from a government agency to directly surveil the millions of email accounts hosted by Yahoo in 2015. According to the Reuter sources, the decision to open Yahoo Mail’s kimono was made behind closed doors, excluding Yahoo’s then Chief Information Security Officer, who apparently resigned because of this incident.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Yahoo?
Normally, I don’t urge folks to get out the pitchforks and torches, but on reading this I actually used language not normally heard in polite company. Thus far the government agencies named are declining comment. If the allegation proves accurate, I’d say Yahoo customers had their Fourth Amendment rights violated and thoroughly trod upon any trust they might have had left with their still substantial customer base. Coupled with the recent massive breach they experienced in 2014 and the debacle that was their conversion to a new email platform in 2013, it’s no wonder Yahoo has gone from an Internet powerhouse to second-tier media company up for sale. If you are still using Yahoo as a primary email provider for work, you should stop doing so immediately, not only for security issues that they can’t seem to get ahead of, but now for serious breaches of privacy and trust.
In the early days of the internet, building a server dedicated to providing email for your company was a sign that you understood the significant role it played (or would play) in your company’s success. Even small companies spent countless thousands of dollars investing in these complex technology beasts, primarily because it was either that, or use consumer services like CompuServe, HotMail or AOL which just couldn’t meet the growing security and legal needs of most companies. Fast forward to today and I’m still seeing SMB companies insisting on running their own servers for reasons that have since become a liability to their own business.
Things you should consider if you are still running your own email server:
- Do you think your email server is more secure than the ones run by Google, Microsoft or any technology company who’s entire business model is built around providing that service? Unless you are in the business of providing email services, you should focus your efforts and money on your core business.
- How reliable is your technology infrastructure? What happens when your internet goes down? What about the power in your building? Most clients I know have at least one planned power outage a year and probably several unplanned ones, on top of the occassional internet circuit failure. One client was recently down for over a week during the Verizon-Frontier fiasco. Could you survive without email for that long? Could your company?
- How much money have you spent supporting an email server that provides service for a small staff? Have you calculated the cost per user per month? Is it less than $5? If not, you are not “beating the market”. And even if you are, how long do you think that will last? Did you factor in spam and malware filtering licensing costs?
- After having the same mailbox and server for years, has your mailbox grown to an enormous size and now you are running out of space and have no real means to do anything about it? Is your mail backed up? Can you even reasonably search through that much email and not have constant problems?
- Have changes in your industry required you provide security like encryption or compliance filtering? Suddenly you are faced with the prospect of needing to not only purchase new software, but also having to update your technology infrastructure just to be compatible with the new software.
If any of these five points hit close to home, you should definitely be considering the move to a hosted email provider. The market has stabilized to the point of being able to provide enterprise-grade email services on an SMB-sized budget, leveling a playfield that used to favor deep pockets and dedicated IT staff. It’s time to retire the in-house email server and invest in the future of your business instead of a dead-end technology strategy.
In a disturbing trend that bodes ill for everyone, multiple US healthcare institutions have been victimized this past month by highly effective ransomware attacks. In each instance, the malware infection has significantly disrupted operations and, in some cases, forced administrators to actually pay out thousands of dollars in ransoms to regain control of their data and IT systems. In the case of the Hollywood Presbyterian attack, the hackers initially demanded $3.6 million in bitcoin to release the data and systems their malware had encrypted, but settled for $17k. More hospitals in California, Kentucky and Maryland have also been hit and crippled by ransomware attacks, in some cases paying the ransom to regain control of their IT systems, and in other cases recovering systems and data through established data backup platforms and security protocols. And just to keep things interesting, toy-maker Mattel was also defrauded out of $3 million after falling victim to a carefully-planned an well-executed email scheme.
What this means for you:
Though some of the hospital attacks mentioned above are thought to have come from a documented server exploit known to exist in healthcare software platforms, analysts are reporting a surge in emails carrying viral payloads including new, highly-effective variants of ransomware, probably because of the highly-publicized ransom payment made by Hollywood Presbyterian. The harsh reality of this worrying trend is this: it costs criminals virtually nothing to start malware campaigns that are resulting in hundreds of millions in damages to organizations around the world, and it’s netting those same criminals an equivalent amount of money paid by desparate victims. Despite spending millions on security, businesses and individuals around the world still fall victim to this ploy because of the humble email. Previously I had written about ways to spot fake emails (and you can still spot them if you look hard enough), but given how many emails we receive, and how clever attackers are becoming, it’s only a matter of time before any of us get duped and it’s already too late after that second mouse-click. Or is it? Though the ransomware attacks managed to disrupt operations at the hospitals mentioned above, several of them were able to get back to work once the infections were cleaned out and data restored from backups. The temporary disruptions caused by the compromised systems were kept to a minimum, as was the damage to the wallet, by a tested (and now proven) disaster response and recovery/backup plan. How long could your business afford to be disrupted by a ransomware attack? Could your business survive the loss of critical data? What about the reputation damage resulting from disclosing the attack to customers? If you thought a backup platform was expensive, consider the alternative. In the case of Hollywood Presbyterian, $17k was just the down payment on a huge hit to the wallet.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net