Tips to Protect Yourself from Cyber Criminals

cyber-security laptop with chain and lock
Tips to Protect Yourself (your organization, program, social media accounts, etc.) from Cyber Criminals

With more and more people doing more and more things online, it isn’t surprising that criminals have migrated to the web as well. While it is difficult to obtain accurate data on the topic, leading Internet security company Symantec’s Norton Cybercrime Report 2011 found that 431 million adults worldwide were victims of some sort of cyber crime last year.

Anyone who uses the Internet to do anything is a potential target, but government and financial institutions are often at risk because they house large amounts of data that criminals can use to perpetrate fraud and identity theft. However, not every cyber criminal is motivated by money. The Internet is a boundless public forum; defacing or crashing a high-profile organization’s website has become a popular way to make a statement. The term “hacktivist” was coined to describe these hackers who are out to make a political point on a worldwide stage.

Most Internet users don’t think about all the ways we open ourselves to cyber attack everyday. We just want to be left in peace to download a song, pay a bill or check our bank statement. But every time we connect to the Internet, we become potential targets. Cyber criminals routinely use automated tools to scan for unprotected computers. You may be a specific target or just the victim of a random attack, in the wrong virtual place at the wrong time.

Malicious programs, often referred to as malware, can be installed on your computer remotely without your awareness and certainly without your approval. Trojans are a popular type of malware that, just like the ancient Greeks of Trojan War mythology, gain access to the firewalled city of your computer by pretending to be something they are not. Once inside, a trojan can steal the personal information stored there and/or track which websites you hit and the passwords you enter.

These types of personal attacks can be devastating, but it’s important to be aware that you are not always the intended, end-target of cyber crime. You and your computer can be used as pawns in large-scale attacks. This type of social engineering is becoming increasingly popular among hacktivists. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Justice and, ironically, OnGuardOnline.gov (a Federal Trade Commission website that provides consumers with Internet security advice) were both brought down by a network of hackers who widely distributed a seemingly innocuous link that, once clicked, caused users’ computers to attack the websites with repeated junk requests. When enough users clicked the link at the same time, the huge influx in traffic to the sites caused them to crash.

Cyber crime is reaching epidemic proportions, but there are ways you can protect yourself. You don’t have to be an IT geek to keep your computer and your personal information safe. Just follow a few simple rules:

  1. Keep your operating system up to date. The easiest and best way to make sure you’ve downloaded the latest updates and patches is to set your computer to “auto-update.”
  2. Install anti-virus software and make sure it auto-updates as well.
  3. Set all your social networking sites for secure browsing. This means you will see a little padlock icon in the browser’s status bar, and the web address should start with https – the ‘s’ stands for Secure. Here are links to help you secure some of the most popular social networking sites:

Facebook: http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=486790652130

Gmail: http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=74765

LinkedIn: https://help.linkedin.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/267

  1. Use different passwords for all your sites. If that seems like a staggering amount of passwords to remember, try at least having unique passwords for each type of site you access: work websites, social network sites, financial sites, e-commerce sites, etc.
  2. Be cautious when clicking on links from unknown sources or even people you don’t know well. When in doubt, don’t click it!
  3. If you receive an email asking for personal information, do not give it. Instead, go directly to the institution’s web site or call them to validate the info request. Remember, cyber criminals can create emails and even entire dummy websites that look exactly like Chase, Verizon, PayPal, etc.

Cyber crime is a scary and prevalent problem. Criminals can use your computer to steal from you and even hurt other people and organizations. In today’s world, conducting all your business offline simply isn’t a feasible alternative. However, you can and should protect yourself. Take a few minutes today to work through the checklist above and if you have any issues contact your IT department for help. It can make the Internet safer for you and your entire online community.

This post was submitted by Villanova University.  Villanova University provides online information security training courses, including CISSP certification.

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