Tag Archives: identity theft

New Year’s Resolutions: safer Internet usage

Celebration of the New Year is a time of looking back at the closing year and looking forward to the new year. This is often a time when we set new personal goals for improving our lives in meaningful ways.

Given how much we all use personal computing (you do if you are reading this), all of us can stand to make one or more improvements in our computing hygiene, making us safer and better off.

This article contains categories of ideas that you can choose from. Read through these and decide which of them will be best for you to adopt as a resolution.

Home computing

  • Back up your data, so that you can recover it in case of theft, disaster, or other loss.
  • Keep your anti-virus working and healthy.
  • Configure your computer to automatically download and install security patches.
  • Use an online virus scanner to scan your computer, in case your install anti-virus misses one.
  • Use different user accounts for each family / household member.
  • Use OpenDNS to help prevent visiting phishing sites.
  • Use OpenDNS to restrict the types of sites that can be visited from your home (or office) network.
  • Tune up your home firewall (which may be in your DSL router or cable modem).
  • Use different passwords for each online site you log in to; use a password vault to remember your passwords.

Safe smartphone usage

  • Choose a good unlock password for your smart phone. If you insist on using numeric only, use 8 or more digits.
  • Set your smartphone auto-lock to 15 minutes or less.
  • Keep track of where your smartphone is at all times.
  • Install a “find my smartphone” app to discover its location if lost or stolen.
  • Do not save any passwords on your smartphone.
  • Limit your access to sensitive / valuable information (e.g. online banking) from your smartphone, especially if it is Android.

Protecting your identity

  • Keep your anti-virus working and healthy.
  • Check your credit report at least once per year (or, more ideally, every four months by checking your credit report for a different bureau each time).
  • Be conscious of where and how you provide personal information (name, address, date of birth, etc.) to online sites.
  • Resist the urge to click on links or documents in suspicious looking e-mail messages. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is a scam.
  • Carefully review all financial statements from banks and credit cards. Consider closing some accounts if you have too many.
  • Get a home safe or use a bank safe deposit box to store valuables such as passports, birth certificates, seldom-used credit cards, and other valuables.
  • Use a home shredder to shred documents containing sensitive or personal information.

If you feel you need to starting doing all of the above, I suggest you choose the few that are most important and establish them as good habits. Then, return to this list and choose a few more to implement. If you attempt to make too many changes at once, you might become frustrated by all of the changes and revert back to your old ways.


Protect your Black Monday shopping with a quick tune-up

I cannot stress enough the need for every PC user to have a healthy, working, properly configured anti-virus program running on their computer at all times.

[updated December 1, 2012]
Before embarking on online shopping trips, it’s worth the few minutes required to make sure your computer does not enable the theft of your identity.

Tens of thousands will have their identities stolen in the next few weeks, because malware was able to help steal valuable information from you such as credit card numbers, online userids and passwords. A few minutes work will go a long way towards preventing this.

That, or you can do nothing, and potentially have to take days off of work to cancel credit cards, write letters, get credit monitoring, and get back to where you are right now with perhaps forty hours’ work.

It’s up to you.


1. On your PC, connect to http://update.microsoft.com/ .  Go through the steps required to check that all necessary security patches are installed.

Note: If you are able to connect to Internet sites but are unable to successfully install updates at update.microsoft.com, your PC may already be compromised. If so, it is important that you seek professional help immediately to rid your computer of malware. Delays may be very costly in the long run.

2. To eliminate the need to periodically visit update.microsoft.com, confirm that Automatic Updates are properly set. Use one of the following links for detailed instructions (all are Microsoft articles that open in a new window):

Windows XP | Windows Vista | Windows 7 | Windows 8 (automatic updates are turned on by default)

If you are unable to successfully turn on Automatic Updates, your PC may already be compromised. If so, it is important that you seek professional help immediately to rid your computer of malware. Delays may be very costly in the long run.

3. Ensure that your PC has working anti-virus software. If you know how to find it, make sure that it has downloaded updates in the last few days. Try doing an update now – your anti-virus software should be able to successfully connect and check for new updates. If your Internet connection is working but your anti-virus software is unable to check for updates, it is likely that your PC is already compromised.

Note: if any of the following conditions are true, it is important that you seek professional help immediately to make sure your computer is protected from malware.

a. You cannot find your anti-virus program

b. Your anti-virus program cannot successfully check for updates

c. Your anti-virus program does not seem to be working properly

If you are not sure whether your anti-virus software is working (or if you computer even has anti-virus software), you may wish to download and run Microsoft Security Essentials. This is a free anti-virus program from Microsoft. While some professionals may argue that this is not as effective as any of the commercial brands of anti-virus software (Sophos, Symantec, McAfeeTrend Micro, Panda, etc), it’s better than having nothing at all.

December 1, 2012 Update: Microsoft Security Essentials has lost its certification as being an effective anti-virus program. Full test results available here in an easy to read chart. Note the absence of the “AVTest Certified” logo next to Microsoft Security Essentials.

Several free anti-virus programs are worthy of consideration: AVG, Avast, Zone Alarm Free Antivirus + Firewall, Panda Cloud Anti-Virus. I cannot stress enough the need for every PC user to have a healthy, working, properly configured anti-virus program on their computer at all times.

Why the security war will never be won

At security trade shows like RSA, we are purposefully given the impression that if we just employ some new defensive technique or purchase some new defensive tool, we will be able to keep intruders out of our systems for good.

How many times have we heard this? And how is this different from remedies that promise to solve other problems like our finances or our physical appearance?

The information security war will never be won.


As long as people, or groups of people, have accumulated wealth of any kind. Other people try to steal it. We can keep ahead of the thieves for a time, as our defenses sometimes prove better than their offensive capabilities. But the wealth is still there, proving to be such a tempting challenge to some that they will use all of their imaginative powers to find a way in.

In our homes, we have better locks, stronger doors, better windows, better alarm systems – for what?  It doesn’t seem like the problems of residential burglaries is getting any better, despite these improvements. Thieves simply improve their techniques and find a way around our defenses.

In our information systems, we have better firewalls, application firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, anti-malware, and a host of other defensive (and even some offensive) security controls. But intruders still find a way in.

There are times when it proves very challenging to break directly in to information systems.  That is when intruders switch tactics: they target personnel who are employed in the organization that owns the systems, using a variety of techniques to trick users into performing seemingly harmless tasks that give intruders the beachhead they need.

Why do intruders persist?  Because of the wealth that lies in the target systems. Whether this is direct monetary wealth, or information that can be traded for monetary wealth, as long as the information is there, and no matter what measures are used to protect the information, intruders will find a way to retrieve it. This is true, even if you have all of the latest defenses, tools, training, and so on.  Your defenses will only slow down a determined intruder, and maybe only be a small margin.

  • We must protect all systems. An intruder will attack the system of his choosing.
  • We must protect from all types of attacks. An intruder will use an attack method of his choosing.
  • We must protect our systems at all times. An intruder will attack at a time of his choosing.
  • We must teach all personnel to be aware of threats. An intruder will attack the person of his choosing.
  • We must obey all laws when defending our systems. An intruder may break any law of his choosing.
  • The intruder will always choose the path of least resistance, the weakest link, at our most vulnerable time.
  • Intruders are patient and resourceful, and often well-funded, and often more motivated by the prospect of success than we are by the prospect of intrusion.

Preventing browser hijacking

Browser hijacking occurs when an intruder is able to successfully exploit a vulnerability in a user’s browser program.  When a browser is hijacked, the intruder is able to control how the browser operates. Examples include changing the default home page, as well as other settings.

Why is this a problem?

Some browser settings can cause all of the traffic between your browser and Internet web sites to be routed through the intruder’s system. This allows the intruder to follow your every move, and it may also allow the intruder to capture passwords you enter at sites such as online banking and e-mail.

Are you concerned yet?  You should be! If your browser has been hijacked, you could become a victim of fraud or identity theft.

Quick Fixes
(assumes you have a Windows computer)

  1. Turn on Automatic Updates. This will cause your system to automatically download and install all the latest security patches for Windows and Internet Explorer
  2. Install Microsoft Security Essentials or other anti-virus program.  AVG has a very good free anti-virus program.
  3. Scan your computer for malware using your on-board anti-virus program.
  4. Scan your computer for malware using one of several good web-based anti-virus programs, such as: Panda, Symantec, Trend Micro.
  5. Turn on Windows Firewall.
  6. Update to the latest version of Internet Explorer, which has a better design and better security controls.
  7. If you don’t want to update Internet Explorer (or if you already have the latest), reset your IE settings.
  8. Manage and disable add-ons. A lot of browser hijacking is the result of add-ons.

Even after you do these things, you’ll still be running a combination of software that is vulnerable by design and requires constant vigilance. Read on.

Long-Term Fixes

If you are running Windows, I highly recommend you stop running Internet Explorer altogether. Use it ONLY for running Microsoft Update, online virus scans (from step 4 above – most require IE), and those occasional website that do not render well in other browsers.

For greatest security when browsing on Windows, use Firefox with the NoScript and FlashBlock add-ons. This combination is the safest possible browsing when using Windows. You’ll still have to run anti-virus and automatic updates, though.

Paradigm Shift

Most people use Windows, but few people HAVE to. There are two excellent alternatives:

  • Linux. The “ubuntu” release of Linux is highly reliable, easy to use, and secure. If you have a good PC, you can download ubuntu, burn it onto a CD, and try it out on your own computer. If you really, really like it, you can install ubuntu Linux onto your computer and say goodbye to Windows forever. We have done this on two systems here. Linux runs so much faster on a PC than Windows that you will think you got a hardware upgrade!
  • Linux in a virtual machine. If you *have* to run Windows (because of that expensive software that runs only on Windows), then I recommend you download VirtualBox and install Linux as a guest. Then, do all of your Internet browsing from the Linux machine (running Firefox, Noscript, and Flashblock as described earlier). You can run it in full screen mode, which is the next best thing to running Linux on your hardware. Another nice thing about this method is that if you do get malware on your Linux system, you can reset your Linux system back to an earlier state (I have never had this happen, but if I did mess something up in the Linux system, reverting to a recent snapshot is still a nice feature).
  • Mac OS. If your PC is not that great and you want to upgrade to new hardware, this is a great time to buy a Mac. While they may initially seem more expensive, you get excellent value and performance. On Mac OS, you can download Open Office, which is free and compatible with Microsoft Office. We have three Macs at home (a Mac Mini, a MacBook, and a MacBook Pro) and are totally satisfied with them. They are great computers.

Note regarding purchasing a Mac computer: do not get caught up in feature comparisons (e.g. a Windows system with a larger screen for less money than a Mac).  A Windows system is still just a Windows system, vulnerable by design and more expensive in the long when when you consider all the time you have to spend to keep it secure / make it secure. These videos say it better than I can:

Include safe computing in your list of New Years Resolutions

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The New Year is a time of reflection, and traditionally a time to consider changing one’s habits.

Our reliance upon computers and networks has exceeded our means to safely use and control them. Every computer user has some responsibility to make sure that their computer and use of the Internet does not introduce unknown and unwanted risks. By following these recommendations you will greatly reduce your risk to fraud, identity theft, and other risks related to Internet usage.

1. Change your passwords. Use strong passwords, which cannot be easily guessed by others, even those who know you. Do not share your password with any other person. If needed, store your passwords in a protected vault such as Password Safe or KeePass. I recommend you not use an online vault for password storage: if their security is compromised, so are your passwords.

2. Scan for Viruses and other malware. Configure your anti-virus software to scan your entire computer at least weekly. Make sure that your anti-virus software is checking for updates at least once per day. Also scan your computer with one of several online virus scanners at least once per month.

Panda: http://www.pandasoftware.com (look for the ActiveScan link on the home page)

Symantec: http://security.symantec.com/default.asp?productid=symhome&langid=ie&venid=sym

Trend Micro: http://housecall.trendmicro.com/

Kaspersky: http://www.kaspersky.com/virusscanner

CA: http://www3.ca.com/securityadvisor/virusinfo/scan.aspx

3. Block spam, and don’t open spam messages. The majority of spam (unwanted junk email) is related to fraud. Spam messages advertise fraudulent or misleading products, or lure you to websites that contain malware that will attempt to take over your computer (without your knowing it) and steal valuable information from you.

4. Get a firewall. If you use Windows, turn on the Windows Firewall. Ask your broadband service provider to upgrade your modem/router to one that contains a firewall (most newer modems / routers do have firewalls or other similar protection).

5. Remove spyware. Obtain a good anti-spyware program and use it to find and remove spyware from your computer.

6. Update your software. Obtain up-to-date copies of browsers and tools on your computer, as many older versions are no longer secure. This includes Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, Java, and other programs.

7. Install security patches. If you are using Windows, turn on Automatic Updates, and configure it to automatically download and install security patches and updates.

8. Use separate accounts on shared computers. If more than one person uses your computer, set up separate accounts for each user. Make each user an ordinary user or power user, but never an administrator. Making each user an administrator makes the entire computer more vulnerable to malware (viruses, etc.).

9. Browse Safely. Change to Firefox and use the NoScript add-on. This is the only combination designed to block the new “clickjacking” vulnerability present in all other browsers. Also consider using Flashblock (works only with Firefox) if you want to control the use of Flash content in your browser.

10. Protect your wireless WiFi network. The old an still-common “WEP” protocol designed to encrypt your wireless traffic has been broken, and is no longer safe. Upgrade to WPA, even if it means buying a new wireless access point.

11. Back up your data. All kinds of bad things can happen, from mistakes to hardware failures. If you cannot afford to lose your data, then you need to copy it to a separate storage device. External hard drives and high capacity USB thumb drives cost well below US$100. You’ll be glad you did, sooner or later.

12. Encrypt your hard drive. Mostly important for laptop computers, but also important for desktop computers. The TrueCrypt tool is by far the most popular one available, and it’s free. If you don’t encrypt your data, then anyone who steals your computer can (and will) read all of your private data.

13. Check your credit reports. Fraud and identity theft can result in thieves opening new credit card and loan accounts in your name. They run up a balance and then never pay the bill, making that your problem instead. Consider a credit reporting service as well, which will alert you to inquiries and changes to your credit accounts, limits, and balances.


Federal Trade Commission information on free credit reports




Recommended Tools:

Secunia Personal Software Inspector – free tool that examines your computer and alerts you to all of the unpatched and older versions of programs that need to be upgraded.

Password Safe – safe and secure storage of all of your Internet passwords. Also remembers userids and URLs.

NoScript – the only way to control third-party javascript and clickjacking. Works only with Firefox.

TrueCrypt – safe and free encryption of your PC’s hard drive.

FBI Mystery Man ID Thief Sentenced

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Mystery manFBI mystery man Scott Andrew Shain was sentenced to 30 months in prison.


Seattle Times

King 5 News

Earlier articles:

FBI Mystery Man Identified

Fake Fingerprints, Multiple Aliases, who is this guy?

ID theft suspects in TJX heist arrested

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Newswire stories are carrying a story that describes the arrest of several suspects in countries around the world in what is claimed as the largest ID theft ring in history.  This group is accused of possessing over 40 million credit and debit cards, including those in the collosal TJX breach a couple of years ago.

The U.S. Department of Justice claims that some of those arrested are the same persons who broke into TJX’s network.  So this may not merely be a matter of the middlemen being caught, but the actual perpetrators of the TJX break-in.

Stories like this often fade into the background.  Criminal and court proceedings take a very long time and generally do not hold our interest.  Those in my profession (data security) will probably keep a closer eye on this matter than the general public.

Links to news story:

LA Times

CTV News

Bankinfo Security

AP via YouTube: