While the writing has been on the wall for a long time, on Friday, May 12, a new strain of ransomware called WannaCrypt, also known as WannaCry, raged like an out-of-control wildfire across Europe and Asia, ultimately impacting computers in 150 countries.
For many affected by this hack, a few hundred dollars in ransom money is a pittance when compared to the cost of hiring someone to attempt the recovery of your files after they’ve been encrypted. These ransomware attacks would cease to be profitable were there easy workarounds. But at this time, it is highly likely that if you happen to get got by one of these attacks, you should assume your files could be gone for good.
That’s why it’s critical you learn how to protect yourself.
If you’re like most people, you spend about 40 minutes a day on personal hygiene. While that’s a considerable amount of time, you probably don’t consider it to be an issue. It is not the same thing when it comes to cybersecurity. Were it as simple as downloading and installing software updates, the time spent on cyber grooming would be minimal (though the patches do seem to come fast and furious these days).
The issue really is that cyber hygiene is something one should practice 24/7/365. Come to think of it, it requires about the same amount of commitment and mindfulness as it takes to make sure your hair is OK and there’s no spinach in your teeth.
Here are some things to consider including in your daily cybersecurity routine.
When you are trying to find something online or use an app, an update notice can be like a mosquito that’s overly interested in you, but the last thing you should ever do is swat that notice away. It is often the only thing standing between you and the bad guys out there who are looking for a way to exploit weaknesses in the security features of the devices you use on a daily basis.
Both Macs and PCs now offer a way to protect the content stored on your hard drive, and it’s so easy there’s no reason not to use it. It’s called FileVault on Apple and BitLocker on PCs. It is easy to set up, and renders everything on your machine unreadable by a hacker who gains access to it.
For less than $60, you can purchase an external hard drive large enough to store an immense amount of data. That’s where you want to keep your most sensitive personal information. The reason is simple: It is air-gapped (not connected to the internet) most, if not all, of the time. There is no need to be online to back up your hard drive to an external drive. Extra points if you encrypt your data.
If you’re not using long and strong passwords, or still using the same password across multiple platforms and websites, you need to read this. For those who get over that rather low bar, it’s time to improve your game. It used to be that people made cheat sheets with their passwords and stored them in their desks (bad) or on an encrypted thumb drive (way better). That’s no longer necessary. Password managers take away the risk associated with having your passwords written down where they can be found and used. You need only remember one. As far as services go, there are many, and all are better than older methods of managing passwords. Research them online and make sure to read their reviews.
There are more spoof sites out there than you may realize, and they are there to do harm, not good. Always look at the URL to be sure you are on the site you intended to visit and not a clone—the clone often will have a very similar address, so look closely. For an additional layer of security, you might want to consider downloading HTTPS Everywhere, a plug-in that works on Chrome and Firefox and enables HTTPS encryption automatically on sites that support it.
The No. 1 way people get got is thoughtless clicking. Whether it is a fake or corrupted website designed to plant malware on your device or a phishing email that looks like it came from a trusted institution or a friend but is in reality from a cyber fiend, you must have a pause in place and it has to be automatic—when it comes to clicking on anything that comes your way from “out there,” even—or especially if—it looks like a friend or family member sent it.
If you see a story about a data breach or a security compromise on a device you use, consider that an action item for your day. Just take a second to find out if you are affected, and then take whatever precaution you can. The 40 minutes the average person spends on personal grooming is a good rule of thumb. Think of your cyber hygiene like a glance in the mirror.
Increasingly, two-factor authentication is available on the accounts we use daily, and it is essential that you set it up. It means that if a person hijacks one of your accounts, there isn’t much damage they can do without also having possession of your mobile phone or access to your email account. It’s an easy measure anyone can take to improve their personal cybersecurity.
In my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves, I go into greater detail about the various ways your information can be got and what you can do to protect it. The main lesson: Practice what I call “The Three Ms,” which are as follows:
Minimize your exposure. Don’t authenticate yourself to anyone unless you are in control of the interaction, don’t overshare on social media, be a good steward of your passwords, safeguard any documents that can be used to hijack your identity, and consider freezing your credit. (Here’s how to decide if you need a credit freeze.)
Monitor your accounts. Check your credit report religiously, keep track of your credit score, read Explanation of Benefits statements from your health insurer and review major accounts daily, if possible. (You can check two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) If you prefer a more laid-back approach, sign up for free transaction alerts from your bank, credit union and credit card companies or purchase a sophisticated credit and identity monitoring program.
Manage the damage. Make sure you get on top of any incursion into your identity quickly and/or enroll in a program where professionals help you navigate and resolve compromises. These are oftentimes available for free or at a minimal cost through insurance companies, financial institutions and HR departments.