Can You Avoid Being Hacked?

Darryl S. Neier, CFE, MS, Principal of the Firm, Sobel & Co., LLC

The recent customer hacking that retail giant Target experienced, along with continuing updates on similar situations from Neiman Marcus and many others, only serves to highlight the challenges that all retailers, large and small, face when trying to protect their customers’ data.

The Secret Service, charged with safeguarding the nation’s financial infrastructure, says that unfortunately, offense outpaces the defense today, and that all that most companies can really do is hope there is early detection of a breach and subsequently swift action to repair it. These observations were made by security expert Shawn Henry in an interview with CNN.

But it is not only businesses that have to worry about hacking. Individuals like you are just as vulnerable!

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So, what can you do? The first, and most obvious, answer to this question is that you need to be aware and alert. As hackers work to get a foothold into your network, you must be as vigilant regarding your electronic world as you are safeguarding the tangible items, such as credit and debit cards, that are typically found in your wallet. Remember that all scams rely on your acting quickly, before thinking through all the options. If you pause and consider the offer and the validity of it, you may be able to head off the problem before it occurs.

Today’s hackers are sophisticated and innovative and have access to complex malicious software (malware) that they can use to attack your system, but if you are aware of what is going on, you are on a much better position to protect yourself and key pieces of your identity, such as your social security number, bank account or credit card numbers.

So what are some of the most successful scams that are being used today?

1. Phishing. In this scenario you receive an email saying that a Nigerian prince needs your help transferring millions of dollars out of the country and that you can earn a significant percentage by helping facilitate the transaction. Or you may be told you have won a contest, or you may receive an announcement that you can make a profit by shipping goods to someone out of the country.  The common thread in all of these situations is that you are asked to supply personal or banking information, which goes directly to the hackers to use against you as they infiltrate your files.

2. Trojan horse. Since the goal of many hackers is to slip a virus onto your computer, they often disguise the virus as something harmless or familiar. In this scenario, you receive an email that looks like it is from a legitimate shipping service, bank or some other reputable company that you recognize. They invite you to open an attachment, and once you have done so, the virus is installed before you can stop it from penetrating your computer. Again, using common sense is one of the best ways to defend your identity. Even though the email may look exactly like it came from your bank – complete with official logo – you know that your bank would never reach out to you asking for personal, confidential information by email! If you really think it is legitimate, call the bank and ask.

3. Drive-by downloads. Hackers also use this process to embed a virus in your computer. They establish a website for you to visit, sending you the URL through a phishing email or even a Facebook posting. Malicious codes can even be embedded into legitimate websites and once you click, the code scans your computer for a security “hole” that can be breached to provide an entrance into your system. To avoid this situation, be sure to keep your programs up to date by downloading the monthly Microsoft updates for Windows and Internet Explorer that are designed to close these types of security gaps. Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader along with Oracles Java also must be update regularly because old versions can be quickly compromised.

4. Bypassing passwords. Instead of trying to “guess” your password, hackers may go around the password challenge by obtaining the information through a virus they have installed on your computer, or from a website you use, or even by accessing data from a security breach at a company where you do business. Smart hackers who want to get into your files may even be able to answer your security question. This is because you, unwittingly, supply the details. For example, if you have the name of your dog on Facebook, and “your dog’s name” is your security question, a hacker can easily fill in the blanks.

5. Using open W-Fi. If your home Wi-Fi is not encrypted, anyone can connect to your network from outside, leaving an open door for hackers to see and record all your transactions.

Given these activities, there are some things you can do to protect yourself:

  • First of all, secure your home network. The details are most likely in your Wi-Fi router’s manual.
  • Secondly, have a separate password for each account so that if one is compromised, they all do not fall victim at once. To keep all your passwords straight, it is suggested you use a third party software program called a ‘password manager’ that can create and store passwords for you.
  • Thirdly, if you are creating your own passwords, make them difficult (and not easily guessed at) by creating a combination of numbers, symbols, special characters and letters. Passwords are the first line of defense against break-ins to your online accounts and computer, tablet, or phone. Poorly chosen passwords can render your information vulnerable to criminals, so it’s important to make your passwords strong. Strong passwords are phrases (or sentences) at least eight characters long—longer is better—that include at least three of the following: uppercase and lowercase letters, numerals, punctuation marks, and symbols. Avoid kids’ and pets’ names and don’t share passwords with others or store them on the device they’re designed to protect.
  • Fourth, consider sharing less on Facebook, LinkedIn and other public sites. Without even knowing it, you are creating opportunities for hackers by telling them so much about yourself.
  • Lastly, understanding that hacking can still occur, don’t forget to back up your data. Use an external hard drive or an online service, but leverage some option to ensure that if your smartphone is stolen or your computer is infiltrated, you do not lose precious photos or other irreplaceable data.  

In conclusion, the most important thing you can do is to be careful and thoughtful, think twice before your respond to any email, and protect your data with strong passwords.

Information for this article was researched at – Five Ways Hackers Attack You and How to Counter Them; – Five Wys to Avoid Being Hacked by Sonari Glinton; www. – Expert: Companies Like Target Can’t Prevent Hackers and – Creating Strong Passwords.

This column will provide business advice and new  perspectives on business news, emerging trends and traditional topics impacting individuals, family businesses and professional service providers across the tri-state area.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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