2017-06-21 / Columns

‘Swiped’ author helps consumers with cyber privacy


Last month, computer users in most of Europe, Russia, and parts of Asia were gripped by fear of a new version of the so-called “ransomware” viruses. The “wannacry” virus is a kind of computer malware that encrypts the contents of an infected hard drive and then demands that the computer owner pay a ransom to get the data unlocked.

The initial infections began dying out when a computer security researcher in the UK realized that the virus included a “kill switch” and activated it to shut down the virus. Few computers in the US were affected because, experts say, most users here are using more current versions of operating system software like Windows 10, which was not affected. Many of the computers affected overseas were said to be using older systems like Windows XP, which Microsoft no longer supports, or in China and Asia, illegal copies of operating software that could not be updated with security patches.

But these lucky facts about a “not ready for prime time” computer virus should not lull users into a false sense of security, says cyber expert Adam Levin.

Levin is a former director of consumer affairs for the state of New Jersey, and now runs a company called CyberScout, which helps companies with cyber security issues. He is also the author of “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves” (Amazon affiliate link: http://amzn.to/2qcGlyQ).

“People are pretty concerned that there will be variants of this, several hundred, in fact,” Levin said in a recent interview. “It could come in phishing email or attachments that people unintentionally download. Many people have access to this on the dark side, and one never knows when it ends.”

Levin says software companies may be surprised by the number of legitimate users who ignore routine software updates.

“So many people get a notification that an update is available, and they look at it like it’s a mosquito and they flick it aside,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you don’t update when a vulnerability is found and a patch is issued, you are leaving yourself exposed to horrible things.”

Companies should update their systems and their anti-virus software on a regular basis, Levin counsels. “Equally important is that companies, and frankly, consumers as well, should be making sure that they have independent backup systems that should not be connected to their network 24/7.”

The danger, said Levin, is that all systems connected to an infected computer could be compromised. Having a backup system that regularly copies important data and then disconnects from the network can help protect vital information, he said. Monitoring systems is also important, including hiring specialists to test the systems for weaknesses.

Levin said the best defense against cyber criminals is often “a good offense.”

“Don’t click on links,” he says flatly. “Even if it’s from someone you know, unless you can independently confirm with that person that they sent it to you. Don’t click on attachments, even if you think it was sent by somebody who is a superior, either a manager or the head of the company. Make the phone call to make absolutely sure— before you download that attachment—that it really came from the person that you think it’s coming from.”

Two-factor authentication can help protect online accounts, too, Levin said. This involves combining your login and password with a system that sends a text code to your cellular phone that you have to type into a website before you complete the login.

You can hear more cybersecurity tips from Adam Levin in a podcast interview I conducted with him, at http://bit.ly/LevinPod.

Have questions about cybersecurity or computer viruses? Email me at steve@compuschmooze.com and follow me on Twitter @PodcastSteve. 

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