Why Hackers Attack Your Computer – And What You Can Do About It

“Why would a hacker try to get into my computer? I don’t have anything they’d want!”

As an expert in small business and consumer security, this is the number-one question I’m asked. The answer? Money.

Earning Big Bucks The Hacker Way
Cybercrime is a multibillion-dollar business. Hackers can earn up to $100,000 per day with these scams. That kind of money certainly sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Poor economic conditions and high unemployment make hacking an attractive, if illegal, option both in the U.S. and abroad.

Installing viruses on your computer, stealing your password, hijacking your accounts – all these things bring in some seriously big bucks.

So how do hackers earn their ill-gotten gains? By taking advantage of you in two ways:

1. Commandeering your computer
Installing viruses on your computer allows criminals to control it. They can do everything from redirecting your web searches to capturing your passwords and credit card numbers. They may also install adware from which they get a kickback.

Why do they want to control your computer? Because it’s far more useful to command an army of ten thousand computers than it is to do their dirty work with one. It also creates layers of confusion between hackers and law enforcement.

Even better, they can sell access to their thousand-bot army to other scammers who might want to pull off fake pharmaceuticals, pay-per-click surveys, or 419 scams.

Plus, it gives them ammunition for…

2. Stealing your online identity
If you receive a message from Joe Neverheardofhim, you’re unlikely to click the link or attachment. But if you get a message from your best friend who says she’s stuck overseas and got mugged and desperately needs you to wire money, you might do it.

That’s a real-life scam, by the way. See the Snopes article here.

People are more likely to click on links from people they know. Hackers take advantage of that by breaking into legitimate accounts: email, Facebook, Twitter. If you see a weird message from a friend, hesitate before you click – they may have been hijacked.

Hijacking accounts feeds back into commandeering computers, which leads to hijacking accounts. It’s a perfect world for the hackers, in which their every action can have multiple lucrative rewards.

How To Protect Your Computer
The best way to prevent yourself from becoming a victim is to protect your computer. Here are some more Tech Tips to get you started:

Do you have questions about how to protect your computer from hackers? Ask in the comments! You can also subscribe free to Tech Tips by email for more computer news, security tips and social media advice!

How To Recognize An Email Scam

Email scams are inundating our inboxes. From fake Facebook links to phony software programs, cybercriminals use email as the bait for their hooks. And many people fall for it.

Rule #1: Never click on email links. You should always go to your Web browser and type the site name directly. Links are easily forged, and clicking bad links allows viruses to bypass your security and silently install themselves on your computer. Remember our motto: Think Before You Click.

We’re going to dissect three of the most common email scams: fake social-media messages, phony antivirus warnings, and counterfeit account statements. But first, let’s talk about how these scams work. All of them bear similarities: use of real logos, colors, and addresses; realistic-sounding language; and links that look like they lead one place when they actually go somewhere else.

Don’t rely on poor grammar or punctuation to tell a scam from the real deal. Some scams may be amateur efforts, but others are so convincing that it’s almost impossible to detect them. It’s best to err on the side of caution and never click links in any email messages.

(Click the screenshots below to enlarge them and see how these email scams try to trick you.)

The Facebook Fake-Out
What It Is: False messages from popular social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are a popular way to harvest passwords and sneak viruses onto your computer. People are used to getting email from these sites, so they will click without a second thought. As a result, social media has become the top method of computer virus infection.

How To Avoid It: Never click on links in email. Go directly to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media sites by typing the site addresses into your Web browser. Don’t try to reset your password via instructions or links in email – and shame on LinkedIn for encouraging people to do exactly that in their recent password breach. See, even real companies get security wrong sometimes, so don’t listen to bad advice no matter who it’s from.

The Phony Antivirus Program
What It Is: Rogue antivirus is fake software that tricks you into installing it, usually by displaying phony infection warnings or upgrade notices. I’ve discussed rogue antivirus before; you can read about it here and here. Once a rogue antivirus program commandeers your computer it will disable legitimate antivirus, regenerate itself if deleted, and even hold your data for ransom.

How To Avoid It: Don’t install software on your computer unless you know where it’s from. When in doubt buy a packaged program from a store. Go directly to security software makers’ sites to buy and download software rather than relying on links in email.

The False Billing Statement
What It Is: Counterfeit billing statements attempt to harvest your password and account credentials. This information can be used to gain access to other accounts including your bank accounts and credit cards.

How To Avoid It: If you receive electronic statements, don’t click links in them. Visit the site directly to enter your account information. Never believe a password reset email or instructions to “verify” your account.

These are not the only scams in town. Fake package delivery notices, marketing surveys, and other scams abound on the Internet. It’s up to you to learn how to recognize and avoid them, but hopefully this has given you a head start.

Another Recent Email Hijack: “I Would Like To Introduce A New Company…”

I’ve gotten an increasing number of reports from people who either received messages similar to the following, or discovered that such messages had been sent from their email accounts:

Subject: Hello

Dear friend,

i would like to introduce a good company who trades mainly in electronic products, They provide the best service to customers,they provide you with original products of good quality,and what is more,the price is a surprising happiness to you!

The web address: (removed for safety)

If you check online you’ll find reports of this coming from users of Hotmail, Gmail and other email services. There are variations in the scam. Some may cite a different web site, or may have a different subject or message in the email.

If you receive a message like this, the important thing is NOT to click on any links because it will infect your computer with viruses. The same goes for messages you may receive via instant messaging (IM), Facebook, Twitter, or other means. Inform the person who sent it to you by another means (like the good old fashioned telephone) to let them know they have been hijacked.

How can you tell if a message is real or not? If it seems generic, contains no subject or a bland subject like “hi” or “hello,” doesn’t mention you by name, contains spelling, grammar or punctuation errors, or has been sent en masse to a large number of people, those are indications it may be a scam. Ask yourself: Is this the sort of message I would expect this person to send?

If your account has been hijacked, it’s vital to change your password immediately. Here’s some information on how to create strong passwords:

And here is some more information on what to do if your email account is hijacked:

Be sure to scan your computer with your security software. If you’re using free software you should consider purchasing a security software suite. You should also check your email signature and any autoresponders you may have set, as they may have been modified to send malicious links to your contacts. Inform your contacts that your account was hacked and that they should not respond to any scam messages they have received. And you should report the incident to your provider.

These hacks are becoming more and more prevalent. It is absolutely vital that you protect yourself by using strong passwords that are unique for every account, and that you stay vigilant about your computer’s security.

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Recording Of Webinar On Top Computer Security Risk For Businesses

Thanks to everyone who attended my webinar on Top Computer Security Risks For Businesses. If you missed the webinar, you can find it online here:
Here are links to some of the resources I mentioned in the webinar. I hope you find this information helpful.
Related Triona’s Tech Tips Articles:
If you’d like a seminar for your business or organization, please let me know.
Subscribe free to Tech Tips and receive bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.

What To Do If Your Email Account Is Hijacked

My column in today’s Northwest Herald talks about the recent uptick in hijacked email accounts. Hackers hijack your account in order to prey on your contacts by sending spam, malicious links, and outright requests for money in your name. And not just your email account… Facebook, LinkedIn, and other accounts can also be hijacked.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself, not just from hijacked accounts but also from viruses, spyware and other Internet threats:

• Use strong passwords that are unique on every system, and change them every few months. Earlier this week I posted an article about how to create secure passwords. This is the number-one thing you can do to prevent your accounts from being hijacked.

• Use a high-quality security software suite. I used to recommend free solutions for Windows like AVG combined with Spybot or AdAware, but these days I’m finding the freebies aren’t enough to protect you. Norton and McAfee will do the job, but Norton in particular tends to take up a lot of memory which may make older machines run more slowly. I prefer AVG’s paid Internet Security Suite or Trend Micro’s Titanium Internet Security or Titanium Maximum Security. If you’re using free AVG, you can get a discount on the full AVG suite if you buy through the “upgrade from free version” option.

Whatever solution you choose, be sure it is a full suite—containing antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall—and not just antivirus. And be sure it’s real software and not one of the many rogue security programs that are actually viruses in disguise.

Mac users, you need security software too. My personal favorite is Intego VirusBarrier or Internet Security Barrier. If you run Windows on your Mac through Apple’s Boot Camp or a program like VMWare or Parallels, try Intego’s Dual Protection options: VirusBarrier DP or Internet Security Barrier DP. These include BitDefender for Windows to protect the Windows half of your computer.

• Make sure ALL of the software on your computer is regularly updated. In one of my previous Northwest Herald columns, I talked about the dangers of old software. Here on my blog I’ve also talked specifically about the risks posed by old versions of Adobe (Acrobat) Reader and Flash.

• If you’re on Windows, use a browser other than Internet Explorer. Using Firefox or Opera instead of Internet Explorer offers you that much more protection. If you must use Internet Explorer, find out why older versions of Internet Explorer pose a greater risk of virus infection.

• Watch out for poisoned search engine results and learn how to spot bad web links.

• Never click on links or open attachments in email. Always visit the site directly. For example, if you get an email saying you have a new Facebook message, go directly to facebook.com from your Web browser instead of clicking the link in the email.

• Learn about social engineering and how hackers will do anything and everything to trick you into letting them in.

• And, finally, subscribe to the free email version of Triona’s Tech Tips for easy-to-understand tips you can use to protect yourself from the latest Internet threats.

Beware Fake Facebook Messages Via Email

If you get an email from Facebook saying there is a message for you, do NOT click on the link. Visit Facebook’s site directly instead to respond to any and all messages.

Beware Fake Facebook Messages Via Email

Like the Facebook update scam I dissected for you a few months ago, this latest scam tries to trick you into clicking a potentially malicious link by mimicking a legitimate Facebook message. Take a look at this screenshot and compare it to the Facebook update scam. You’ll see similarities, including the use of Facebook formatting and logo as well as a legitimate-looking link. However, the link actually redirects you to a malicious site. The site on this particular message has already been blocked as being harmful; it probably belongs to some innocent victim whose web site was hacked to deliver viruses or harvest passwords a la the Twitter DM worm. But there are plenty of other phony sites out there that may not have been blocked.

In my case I was alerted to the scam because I’d never heard of the people from whom the messages were purportedly sent, but that’s not a foolproof way to tell if a message is fake or not. Facebook accounts can be hacked, and false messages sent. This grants the fake messages an undeserved level of trust because they come from someone you know–and that’s the point. Cybercriminals know people are unlikely to click on unsolicited links and far more likely to click on something sent by someone they know. The best way, as I said, is to distrust all email links no matter who they’re from. You are far safer visiting the Facebook site directly and checking your messages from there.

Social Engineering: How Viruses Trick You Into Letting Them In

A recent wave of viruses that propagate via Skype and Yahoo Messenger illustrate the principles of social engineering: how viruses bypass security precautions by tricking you into letting them in.

The Skype and Yahoo Messenger worms distribute themselves via messages like  “Does my new hairstyle look good? bad? perfect?” and “My printer is about to be thrown through a window if this pic won’t come our right. You see anything wrong with it?” The accompanying link appears to point to an innocent jpg, but when you click on it you are actually running the worm.

Don’t confuse social engineering with social networking. Social networking means interactive Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. Social engineering is the art of tricking you into installing viruses or malware on your computer. PC and Mac users alike can be drawn in by social engineering scams.

Social engineering is a common tactic used by viruses and malware. The Twitter worm we discussed in February uses direct messages to entice users into visiting a pseudo-Twitter login page that harvests login credentials. Scams like the faux Facebook Update arrive via email, and contain links to malicious web sites. Rogue antivirus software is all about social engineering: make users think their computers are infected with viruses that can only be removed by purchasing the fake software.

How do you avoid social engineering scams?

  • Links can look legitimate when they’re not. For example, I can spoof a link that says:http://support.microsoft.com. Now, before you click that, mouse over it without clicking and look at the status bar at the bottom of your web browser. (If you don’t see the status bar, go to the View menu and make sure Status Bar is checked. It may be under the Toolbars sub-menu.) You’ll note that the status bar reveals the true destination. In this case I used a safe example: my Tech Tips blog. But you can see how links can easily be redirected. The status bar trick works in email, too. It’s not foolproof (the status bar contents can be spoofed as well), but it is a good place to start.
  • If you get a message from someone, try doing a web search on the text of the message to see if it’s a known scam. For example, with the Skype and Yahoo Messenger trick, a quick search for “Does my new hairstyle look good? bad? perfect?” reveals news of the worm, especially if you pair the search with the word “virus.”
  • Don’t let your software protections lull you into a false sense of security. Yes, you need to run good security software and keep it up to date, but the point of social engineering is to get you to click, thus bypassing your protections.
  • And, as always: when in doubt, don’t click.


1.5 Million Facebook Profiles Hacked And Up For Sale

VeriSign iDefense has discovered a hacker selling 1.5 million hacked Facebook profiles for sale on the black market. The profiles are going for $25 for 1,000 profiles with under 10 contacts, and $45 for 1,000 profiles with more than 10 contacts.

Why sell profiles? As you can see from the pricing, it’s all about the contacts. Hacked profiles give criminals the ability to advertise to trusting users. If you get a message from a Facebook friend telling you to click a link, you are more likely to do so than if you get an anonymous spam message in your email. This is what we call spear phishing, targeted campaigns that appear to be from trusted sources. Buy profiles for cheap, trick people into clicking on malicious links or buying junk like rogue antivirus software, and voila! the criminals rake in the profits.

Hacked profiles can also be used to harvest your personal information to crack security questions for juicier targets like your bank accounts. Many people falsely consider Facebook a private environment and post all sorts of information about themselves, their families and their backgrounds. If you post a cute picture of your dog Rover and the security question for your bank is “What is your dog’s name?” you’ve just given away important information.

Likely there are more than 1.5 million Facebook profiles for sale out there. Also for sale are LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, email usernames and passwords, and la creme de la creme, bank accounts and passwords. Even your computer’s processing power can be bought and sold under your nose. It’s a whole underground economy taking advantage of you.

How can you protect yourself? Strong passwords that are unique on every system, good quality security software, and common sense before clicking links. I also encourage you to avoid posting personal information on places like Facebook, be careful of the friend requests you accept, and adjust your privacy settings to maximum. Even so, plenty of people who follow all the rules fall victim. The scams get trickier and more difficult to expose. It’s important to stay educated about computer security, which is why you should subscribe to my free Tech Tips newsletter to keep on top of the latest news.

Beware Twitter Worm, Spreads Via DM

I am seeing a rash of people whose Twitter accounts have been hacked. If you receive a DM (direct message) to your Twitter account saying “is this you???” with a shortened URL, DO NOT CLICK on the URL. Notify your friend via another means and encourage him or her to change Twitter passwords.

Note that it’s the person sending the DM who is the one hacked. But if you receive a message like this, it doesn’t hurt to visit twitter.com directly (DON’T click the DM link!) and change your password anyway.

It is vital to use strong passwords (mix of letters, numbers, upper and lower case, symbols where permitted; no plain dictionary words or easily identifiable names like your spouse, your kids, or your dog). You also need to use a different password on every system, even if you think it’s a pain to do so. If you use the same password in more than one place, the hacker then has entry into the rest of your accounts, like email, web sites and–heaven forbid–bank accounts. In fact, you might want to make an afternoon of it and change all of your passwords everywhere, which is a good thing to do on a regular basis. And don’t cycle passwords between accounts, you never know if one might be compromised. New passwords, strong passwords, different passwords for every system.

This particular worm has been around for a while but like all viruses tends to keep propagating. Be wary of suspicious links and use a site like ExpandURL to investigate shortened links before you click on them. When in doubt you are always better off manually typing in a Web address instead of clicking on a link. These scams are not limited to Twitter but can encompass any type of computer login.

Microsoft Issues Internet Explorer Fix, Begs Users To Upgrade

After a well-publicized incident in which Internet Explorer 6 was implicated in the hacks against Google and other high-tech firms in China, Microsoft is releasing an emergency fix for Internet Explorer, and begging users to upgrade to newer versions.

Today’s emergency fix is for Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8, particularly under Windows XP although Vista and Windows 7 are also affected. This chart shows the risk potential and illustrates why upgrading to the latest version of Internet Explorer is vital to protecting your computer against viruses.

It also illustrates what I mentioned in my recent Northwest Herald column: that the older a program is, the more vulnerable it is to viruses and other Internet threats. The hack on Google involved “spear phishing”, a targeted campaign in which fake emails appeared to be from people the victims knew. The victims were therefore lured into clicking on infected PDF and Microsoft Office documents they might not otherwise have opened. These documents infected the computers with malware using holes in Internet Explorer 6 and other programs. There is some question as to why these companies were using a version of IE well-known to be vulnerable.

This incident is a good reminder for businesses and consumers to monitor their software versions and consider switching to an alternate web browser. It’s also a reminder to be wary of opening attachments even if they appear to be from someone you know.

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