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Staying Safe Online

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

The internet is a truly wonderous invention. Today we have access to most of human knowledge from anywhere in the world, you can have goods and services arrive in no time at all without leaving the comfort of your own home, and even communicate over video with people across the globe, all things that were unheard of just a few decades ago. While the internet has definitely given us a whole new level of access to knowledge and the economy, it also opens us up to a wide range of new threats.

Its not uncommon to hear about a new scam or cyberthreat on the news these days as criminals are becoming ever more creative in the way they steal and utilize our information for their crimes. Luckily, many of these scams and attacks are easily avoidable if you know what you are doing. So lets go over some of the most common threats, phishing, malicious software and programs (Malware), and a special category of Malware, Ransomware. To start lets talk about each type individually so you can have a clear understanding of what they are.

Phishing is by far the most common way cybercriminals steal your information. While the term phishing is specifically for emails, there are variants that cover text and phone calls as well, but they all work the same way. Phishing is when someone pretends to be someone else in order to convince you to hand over your information. An example of this would be someone sending you an email pretending to be the IRS and saying you need to send money to them to prevent legal actions against you. It is very common to instill a sense of urgency so you don't look too closely, as well as trying to pose as a well known company or organization to gain your trust. While this is the most common threat, its by far the easiest to beat!

Next we have malicious software and programs, or malware. This would include viruses, spyware (software that spies on you) , and adware (software that gathers your information for advertising.) These files can be hidden in websites, emails, documents and more to try and "infect" your computer or phone. This is the oldest style of cyberthreats with the first computer virus to arise in 1982! While there are many types of malware out there, luckily security software has evolved along side and is able to help block or remove these pesky little viruses in most cases.

Lastly lets talk Ransomware. The most famous of this style of attack is the WannaCry virus of 2017 that locked many computers down and did excessive damage to many organizations. As the name implies, Ransomware holds your computer ransom by encrypting all files on your computer so you can't open them, then asking you to pay the attacker to fix it. To make matters worse, attackers often accept your payment but never reverse what they have done leaving you with no files and out of a large sum of money. Luckily I can show you how to beat this type of attack so the attacker gets nothing for their efforts.

Now that we've briefly explained the three most common threats, lets talk about how to beat each one. A common theme you will see is that staying vigilant, paying attention, and only using trusted sources is key to staying safe online. Just like you wouldn't buy a TV off someone on a street corner, you shouldn't use "shady" sources on the internet. So, without further ado, lets talk about keeping you safe.

Phishing, as discussed earlier, is the easiest to beat. You don't need any fancy software or tools to prevent falling victim, just your own brain and a little attention to detail. While it's easy enough to make something look official there are always telltale signs that somethings isn't quite right. Most phishing will claim to be a well known organization such as Amazon, USPS, or the IRS, and they will generally be asking for your to log in through a link in the email itself. Always go directly to the website, i.e. if you get an email from Amazon, go to your browser and type to see if there are any actual issues with your account. Next always check the send address. In most cases it wont be quite right, or will be a free email address like gmail. So if you get an email from or its probably a phishing attempt. Lastly if there are links in the email you can hover your mouse over them to see where they really lead. While it may say in the email, hovering over it may reveal it to lead to, this is because you can make a link use any text you like in the email, but hovering will always show where it really goes. So as you can see, just paying attention and following some simple steps you can beat this type of attack.

Next lets talk about all the nasty little viruses out there. The number one best thing you can do to keep them at bay is to keep your anti-virus software and operating system (Windows, Linux, or MacOS) up-to-date. Sure it can be annoying to have something updating but that update may be the difference between your information being safe and your computer being compromised. Think of it like getting your flu shot, yes you got one last year but it doesn't necessarily protect you from the newest strain. Next, never download files from sites or emails you do not know. It is easy to hide malware in documents, pictures, and programs so downloading these from emails and websites you don't know leaves you open to risk. Just like buying a TV at Walmart lets you know the transaction was legitimate whereas going to Joe down the street may lead you to buying stolen property! Lastly, do not turn off your anti-virus protection unless you know what you are doing!! This is like leaving your doors and windows wide open allowing anything and everything in. You have this protection for a reason and turning it off without a good understanding can leave you vulnerable.

Ok so now for our last entry, Ransomware. While it may sound like this would be the hardest to beat as it makes headlines and cripples entire organizations, its actually one of the simplest. While following all the steps for the other two threats does help, if you get ransomware they will no longer work. Once a computer is infected, its usually too late, which sounds bad, but there is one thing that can fix this up in no time. Backups! By having backups of your important files you can reset your computer, wiping it clean of and restoring your files from backup, negating what the ransomware does. If you want something more robust, work with an IT professional to do something called imaging, which saves your computer in a point in time in a separate backup, allowing you to restore your computer to how it was at that point. There are many software and services that can help you have this done at regular intervals and keep multiple copies, and doing this minimizes the possibility for loss due to ransomware.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list to protect you from every possible threat online today, it will definitely give you the knowledge you need to prevent most types of threats keeping you safe and secure. If you ever think you have already fallen for one of these threats, don't wait! Reach out to an IT professional to assist as soon as possible, as timing is key to mitigating damage to your data and identity. If you believe you have gotten a phishing email or scam, please be sure to report it here to help law enforcement find and stop the attackers, as well as report findings to the right people to update databases for anti-virus software.

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