It’s hard to be witty about something you despise with every ounce of your soul, so I’m not going to even try. Do whatever it takes to make sure your less savvy family members know how to identify and ignore the absolute deluge of scam emails and phone calls people have been getting this year. You can help by pointing out the patterns they use, which will hopefully lead them to recognize the patterns and the methods these criminals will use to scam them. At minimum, it will help instill a healthy skepticism which is an essential foundation for being secure in today’s internet-soaked society.
What to watch for
A very common scenario involves the target receiving an email letting them know either that the moderately expensive product they ordered or subscribed to is in danger of not being delivered because of a payment issue. They are hoping that their target is actually a user of this product and will call to make sure the purchase isn’t in jeopardy, or call to cancel, thinking either they forgot to cancel it previously, or somehow mistakenly ordered it (also not difficult to do for real, unfortunately – another despicable marketing tact used by every major technology platform).
It is distinctly possible that you might actually receive a legitimate email from any of the scapegoat products scammers are using, but where they will differ will be in how they attempt to solve “the problem”. The scammers top priority is to get their target on the phone and their primary objectives are fairly obvious – they want access to your PC, or they attempt to get various payment methods identified to make sure your “purchase” is completed. Most obvious is when they insist on getting access to a payment platform that is tied directly to a bank account, whether it be Venmo, Gazelle or your bank’s actual mobile app. As a rule of thumb, unless the person on the other end of the line is someone you know and trust, you should never grant someone access to your PC, or even consent to installing software on your computer or phone. Full stop, no exceptions. If there is ever any doubt or suspicion, stop what you are doing and get a second opinion from a trusted expert.
If you or they have received an email from a recognized brand but are unsure of whether it is a legitimate notification and don’t have ready access to an IT or security professional, pick up the phone and call a known, good phone number for the company, or at minimum, go to the brand’s website typing in the website address directly into the URL field. DO NOT USE SEARCH UNLESS YOU KNOW HOW TO SPOT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ADVERTISEMENTS AND SEARCH RESULTS. Teach yourself and everyone around you how to go directly to a website by typing in the actual website address. Searching for “(famous brand) Support” can lead to various fake websites built expressly to trick people into calling them instead of the actual company. Hackers pay to push these fake sites to what appears to be the top search result, but they are in fact relying on the various search engine advertising page placements to trick people into thinking they picking the top search result.
Criminals are counting on everyone being overwhelmed and rushed. They are hoping you will call the number or click the link they have conveniently provided to you. They will catch you in a moment of weakness and that mistake may end up being very costly. Go slow. Verify carefully. Be sceptical. Ask for advice from someone you trust and know personally.
Image by kewl from Pixabay
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
Traditionally I like my year-end messages to be hopeful, but as I am someone who does not mince words when it comes to your technology, I don’t come to you at the close of 2022 with a message of optimism. If anything, I want to congratulate you for surviving this year with your sanity and health intact, if not your technology security. Accomplishing all three is something to be commended, and I am sad to report that not all of our clients were as successful, including a client and good friend who passed unexpectedly this year. This post is dedicated to him, and to everyone who fought the good fight this year, either against cyberattacks, Covid and everything between.
“Don’t take security for granted.”
This is my year-end message for you: If there is one trend I can clearly point to in this past year (and in years previous), is that you are the first and last line of defense in the war for your technology security. You are the first and last line of defense in maintaining your privacy. We here at C2 Technology are willing and able to throw ourselves in front of as many attacks as we can, but we can’t be with you in every moment, everywhere you touch technology, nor should you want us there. In almost nearly all cases of hacks that we have worked through this year, and numerous others I have read about, breaches and compromises have occurred because attackers are very successful at exploiting human, not technology, weaknesses.
One thing that I know for sure is that you can count on even more cybersecurity attacks in every aspect of your personal and business technology. There is big money in compromising your security – organized crime has moved, full-scale, into funding, staffing and managing highly effective fraud call centers and hit-squads whose primary objective is to trick you into giving them access to your stuff and then cleaning house. On top of this, there is no singular magic bullet, app, governing body nor enforcement agency that can protect you. Let me reiterate – there is no perfect, monolithic solution C2 or any other organization can provide to you to keep you perfectly safe. As with cold weather, layers are better than just a single, bulky jacket. Your best defense will be a collection of services, software and best practices. Your configuration of those layers will vary based on personal or organizational need, but everyone should at minimum be considering the following:
- Constant vigilance is the key. You should assume that you are under constant cyberthreat and act accordingly. As much as it feels distasteful say this given the current political climate, you should consider yourself on cyber-wartime footing with no armistice or ceasefire in your near future. You may have heard me jokingly compare this vigilance with paranoia, but my gallows humor may have done you a disservice in making light of this situation. Make no mistake, this is very serious, and I do not see anyone being able to let down their guard anytime soon. As I mentioned above, C2 can’t always be there for a magical, “Get down, Mr. President!” moment. All we can do is attempt to train you to spot the peril. If you have employees, you should bolster their vigilance with actual, formal training – not everyone will have the same level of urgency on technology security as the principals of the organization, but training and testing will help them understand the importance and impress upon them that this is a part of their job responsibilities, regardless of their role in the organization.
- If you aren’t using unique passwords and multi-factor authentication for your critical online accounts, you are doing the cyber equivalent of leaving the keys in your running car in a dangerous neighborhood. You should check your most-used passwords here, and if any of them show up on the list, immediately change that password everywhere you used it. Right. Now. If you can turn on multi-factor authentication for your banking and other critical service accounts and haven’t already done so, do so. Right. Now.
- Back up your files to a cloud provider on a daily basis. You can get a very reliable, easy to use service for as little as $7/month, and you might already have access to a form of cloud backups through Apple or Microsoft by virtue of other services for which you are already paying. Keep in mind, services like OneDrive and iCloud are a form of short-term backup, but do not normally provide long-term recovery of files deleted more than 30 days ago, nor can they fully protect against certain forms of ransomware attacks, so make sure you consult with your friendly neighborhood technology professional about what would be appropriate for your use case.
- Keep work and personal separate. This may be difficult to do especially if you work from home on your own technology, but the more you intermingle, the more risk you take from one side or the other. This also goes for using your home network if you have family that aren’t as security conscious as you, especially seniors and young children, both of whom are particularly vulnerable to scams that most of us spot in a heartbeat. Your technology professional will have ways to segment your work and home life, but it will result in additional expense and inconvenience.
- At the business level, antivirus and malware protection has evolved into what is now known as “endpoint protection.” The free software that comes with your new PC is NOT endpoint protection, nor is the product they are trying to upsell you. The primary difference between the two is that last generation products relied heavily on definition tables and scheduled scans of your files, which is not nearly as effective against modern malware tactics that sometimes don’t even involve something being installed in your hard drive, or software that literally changes by the hour. Endpoint protection relies on algorithms that are able to analyze the behavior of softwares and services to determine if they might be harmful, and more importantly, are designed not only to protect the device on which it’s installed, but also to protect the network to which it is connected, something that previous gen antivirus software could not do.
- If you deal with any kind of PII (personally-identifiable information) where that information is stored on your computer – even if only in transit – your hard drive should be encrypted, especially if the device housing it is easily stolen, such as a laptop. Fortunately, both Windows and Mac OS do include encryption, but it isn’t always enabled, and in the case of Windows, it is only readily available in the “Professional” (more expensive) variant of their OS.
- You should be making sure your operating system and main software apps are kept up to date. Microsoft releases updates on a weekly basis, and about half of them require a reboot to full apply. Windows 10 (and to a certain degree 11) is so stable that it can go weeks without rebooting but waiting that long can cause other problems that will be a lot more inconvenient than restarting your PC. We recommend clients restart their PCs as frequently as every 3 days – this accomplishes needed housekeeping tasks as well as clearing the “virtual crud” that all PCs accumulate through daily use, especially if you like having lots of windows and apps open.
Technology security requires a holistic approach, and I don’t mean tuning your chakras and making sure your gut biome is balanced. Every aspect of your technology, from internet provider to software services, every device used in the work process, all users, and even your clients’ and customers’ technology should be reviewed and considered when formulating your security approach. The days of “set and forget” are long gone. Protecting your technology is something that will require effort and, dare I say, constant vigilance.
If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that while the majority of our focus is on business technology, I like to keep an eye on all technology, especially issues that can affect our quality of life and personal safety. Hondas are very popular (even here in Los Angeles where it seems like every 3rd car is a Tesla) and according to at least one statistics website, Honda accounts for between 8-9% of the U.S. car market in 2020 and 2021, and the Honda CR-V is near the top of the list of best-selling vehicles for the past several years. It’s safe to say that there are probably millions of Hondas on the road right now, and apparently any that are accessed using a key fob are vulnerable to a hack that allows attackers to unlock car doors and remotely start engines if the car has that capability.
What this means for you
If you own a Honda, you may want to give this article a read, which was based a relatively unknown vulnerability dubbed “Rolling-PWN” by the researchers/hackers that discovered it. The vulnerability is documented and published in the National Vulnerability Database run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is about as official as you can get in terms of documenting vulnerabilities. Despite this, Honda has yet to confirm or even acknowledge the issue. Which also means that there is very little you can do about it other than the following:
- Reconsider what sort of valuables you keep in your car, even if you don’t drive a Honda. This particular hack may not be limited to just Honda according to the researchers. It just happens to be the manufacturer they’ve tested and confirmed vulnerable across multiple years and models.
- Even though they may be able to start the car, they can’t drive the car because they can’t exploit the proximity requirements of the key fob…yet. Regardless, if you park your car in a garage, make sure that it is well ventilated. Carbon monoxide kills, and some prankster might put you in real danger by leaving your car running for hours in garage with poor ventilation.
- Perhaps write a letter to your local congress-critter (Representative and Senator) asking them to look into Honda’s seeming disregard for a significant security issue. If you are friendly with a local Honda dealership (because you own a Honda and use them for service), you could also stop in and show them the article and a link to the exploit on the official government website of vulnerabilities as well. If enough of us raise our voices, perhaps some of these big companies will take notice!
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
Back when I first heard about Facebook I was working for a private university known for its “dry” campus. I was asked to consult on the case of a student who was being disciplined for violating the no-alcohol policy because a picture had been discovered of them buying booze at a nearby supermarket. It had been uploaded by the student’s friend to a hot new website called Facebook. I distinctly remember discussing this with staff and faculty at the time, predicting, “This is going to get a lot of kids in trouble.” There was discussion of banning access to the site, but filtering internet content back then wasn’t as straightforward as it is now, and the discussion was tabled with a promise to review the issue at a later time. Fast-forward to the present, where Facebook is still getting a lot of people in trouble, and themselves as well.
From the frying pan, to the fire, to…incinerator?
It might be hard to believe, but it was only June when we had to air out the latest load of dirty laundry from Facebook. Prior to that, they have been blog subjects seven times this year alone, and none of them were for something good! I’d say this month’s two-fer entry might be their pièce de résistance of colossal cock-ups, but there are still 90 days left in the year, and Facebook seems bent on setting some sort of record for destroying themselves.
First, they were caught red-handed letting advertisers use phone numbers provided by users for authentication purposes, something they had previously denied. To add insult to injury, it’s also come to light that they will also target individuals through contact information uploaded by their friends through the Facebook app, even if the individual never provided any sort of consent for such use.
If that isn’t enough to get your blood boiling, how about 50M Facebook users having their accounts compromised? Rather than the old-fashioned password hack, attackers exploited a bug in Facebook’s “View as” feature which allowed them to essentially steal the authentication token used to provide continued access after you’ve initially logged in. Think of this token as a VIP wristband you might wear at an event that also gets you access to the backstage. This token not only provides you a quick login to Facebook but to dozens of other connected services, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, that allow users to authenticate through Facebook instead of creating a unique login and password. Just like the wristband, Facebook only looks at the token and not the person using it, to determine what they are allowed to access, so you might get an inkling of why it being stolen is kind of a bad thing. The investigation is still ongoing, but according to Facebook, no passwords or credit cards were stolen, and it doesn’t look like the perpetrators of the September breach used their “wristbands” get into the various third-party platforms it could have granted access to, but I’d put even money on Facebook having yet another, “Wait, hold my beer,” moment, so don’t put the pitchforks too far out of reach.
Unfortunately for the two billion humans who are still trying to get some sort enjoyment (or livelihood) out of Facebook, there really isn’t any platform that comes close to being able to replace it. Your choices are “deal with it” or go cold turkey, the latter of which I don’t see any of my Facebook-hooked friends doing any time soon. If you’ve tied your various other online services to Facebook’s login in the pursuit of convenience, it only makes giving up Facebook that much harder and further illustrates just how dangerous this type of practice can be – Facebook login gave everyone a shovel, and quite a few people dug a hole that they have no idea how to get out of. Sadly, not climbing out of that hole and permanently putting the shovel aside essentially rewards Facebook for their negligent security practices, something that we should not do if we ever want the service to be something more than a way for advertisers and hackers (and Facebook!) to exploit for their own profit.
It had all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster: a massive data breach, hackers hired by Russian spies, and a secret operation that went on for years undetected. Except for one rather pedestrian and crucial element. According to indictments handed down by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the hackers penetrated Yahoo’s security not through some sophisticated cyber-tango of caffeine-fueled hacker artistry. There weren’t any high-tech micro computers covertly implanted into neon-lit server racks following a series of cleverly choreographed hi-jinks. No, the largest single leak of Personally Identifying Information was enabled by a Yahoo employee falling for a spear phishing attack.
Here comes the email security soapbox again!
What’s a spear phishing attack and what makes it different from the rest of the spam you get in your email? Typical spam and phishing emails are sent to as many people as possible in the hopes that a small percentage will click the link or open the attachment, whereas spear phishing is designed to target a very specific audience or even a particular individual. They are typically several levels more sophisticated than the usual garbage clogging our email as the content is custom-tailored to appear believable to the target. While I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads at how a single click on a fake email could lead to the largest breach in history against a storied dot-com darling, keep in mind that in the ongoing plate-spinning war of internet security, the good guys only win if they can keep all the plates spinning, and the bad guys win if even a single plate falls.
There are many lessons to be learned from this incident, but perhaps the most important one of all still remains: all security systems are only as strong as the weakest link, and many times that weakest link is a human. Given enough resources, time and determination, any security system can be hacked, and any company or organization can be breached. What’s a business owner to do in light of a seemingly unstoppable force? Just like preparing for two other famously unavoidable eventualities, planning for security breach will prepare you to react properly and deliberately rather than a mad scramble for recovery. Not sure how to get started? Pick up the phone and let C2 give you a leg up on getting ready.
In the latest dramatic chapter of the ongoing encryption battle between the FBI and Apple, the feds have admitted that they worsened their chances of ever finding out the contents of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone when they reset its associated iCloud password in a misguided attempt to access the locked device. According to Apple, prior to that reset, the FBI may have been able to gain access to the device without Apple having to provide a controversial backdoor to its otherwise very secure smartphones. On top of the FBI’s blunder and lack of understanding of Apple’s iPhone security, it’s also clear that several members of the House Judiciary Committee leading the hearings on this controversy are also poorly versed in how smartphone security works. To be fair to everyone, Apple’s iCloud system is arcane even to me, so it’s easy to see how someone unfamiliar with the system could make this mistake.
What this means for you:
Making fun of government officials being ignorant about high tech subjects is like shooting fish in a barrel. The “series of tubes” analogy used by Senator Ted Stevens is just one of many examples of US lawmakers struggling to understand admittedly complex technologies like the internet and encryption. Back then (10 years ago!) it might have been acceptable to dismiss their technology naivety as understandable – after all they are congress people, not IT consultants. But now, in an increasingly technology-permeated society, their ignorance or willful disregard of technology can lead to very bad decisions that have widespread and long-lasting consequences. This is just as applicable to your personal and workplace tech. While it’s impossible to be an expert on everything, if you rely on technology for critical business operations, you should have more than a basic understanding of how to turn it on and off. At minimum you should know what risks come with that technology, and if you cannot claim to be an expert in the technology in question, you should always consult with an experienced technology professional before making game-changing decisions.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Hacktivism is not new, but when the data stolen and released targets a group already beseiged by violent acts of “protest”, have the hackers stepped over the line into actual terrorism? What if the data stolen contains sensitive data aside from financial information, such as medical records, or proof of infidelity? What if the security hole could be used to crash a moving vehicle? Following the scandalous breach at Ashley Madison comes three more hacks that will add to your gray hairs. First up is the “doxing” of Planned Parenthood employees after a hacking group penetrated their network and gained access to employee information, which they promptly released online. It’s not a far stretch to imagine those 300 people being targeted for harassment and violence by more “hands-on” anti-abortion groups now that their information has been made public. Regardless of your feelings about a group’s politics, lining up people in the cross-hairs on an issue known to incite extreme acts of violence is never the right way to protest.
That’s not the worst of it. Keep reading.
UCLA Health – one of the largest hospital systems in the country – revealed that it too had been hacked, and sensitive data on 4.5 million patients and employees has been compromised. While admitting that the usual sensitive information was likely exposed, UCLA officials could not confirm whether the data had actually been stolen, and to add insult to injury, they are only now admitting to the hack, months after the actual breach was detected. No mention was made whether medical records were exposed, though one imagines if such a thing had happened, the enormous liability exposure would lead to full disclosure. One would hope.
If you happened to be a UCLA patient and the owner of a new Jeep Cherokee, you are probably having a really bad week. Fiat Chrysler is recalling over one million new SUV’s after details were released by two hackers who were able to physically disable a moving Jeep Cherokee and send it into a ditch, while the driver was helpless to do anything about it. With our cars becoming increasingly automated and connected (and at some point, self-driving), you can bet this type of event will become more commonplace. It’s good that Fiat Chrysler decided to recall the potentially dangerous vehicles, but indicative of a wider blind spot in all industries of the mounting threat of cyberattacks. Hackers have supposedly been trying for years to call attention to security problems like ones exploited in the Jeep, as others have in industries like airplane manufacturing. Let’s hope no one has to crash a plane to get their attention.