Most people feel safe in their home. The doors are locked, windows are shut and police are a short phone call away.
But the digital era has created a new type of criminal who can break into any back door and can’t be tracked by the police. They don’t steal jewelry, cash or electronics, they steal information and identities.
They’re hackers and they exploit millions of victims who don’t know any better or can’t defend themselves.
“Nobody really wants to see themselves as a target, but it’s sort of a numbers game,” said Russ Schrader, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA). “You have millions and millions of people who shop at retailers and get hacked. These things happen.”
Digital crime prevention is the focus of October’s 15th annual National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM), a campaign dedicated to educating the country on why cyber security is increasingly important as society becomes increasingly intertwined with the internet.
The world-wide web
Cyber crimes commonly include identity theft, digital extortion and data ransoms. It’s nearly impossible for local police to catch cyber criminals because most of them operate in different states and even different countries.
“They tend to be all around the world,” said Sgt. Steve Kerzman, a detective with the Bothell Police Department. “At a city police department level, a sheriff’s department level or even a state department level, it’s hard to chase those people down when they’re in other states and other countries because [the lack] of resources and funds available to go after them. Then on the federal level, they tend to go after bigger fish.”
Police instead focus on prevention and awareness, because one of the easiest ways for criminals to hack someone is for the victim to unknowingly give up their information. A well-known method for this is called a phishing scam.
Criminals can make fake email addresses and even fake websites that look nearly identical to a bank or other organization’s website. They’ll then contact someone with the phony address and attempt to trick the victim into paying them, giving up bank account information or even social security numbers.
“These individuals tend to target the elderly or vulnerable populations and often those people will send money to these outsiders before we’re even contacted and we’re often not able to get the money back for them,” Kerzman said.
Parr mentioned that a common computer scam is a phony pop-up that claims the victim’s computer is broken and needs to be repaired. Criminals will trick their victims into paying money to fix a computer that isn’t broken.
The best way to avoid phishing scams is to simply be aware that they’re out there and double check any email or website link that seems suspicious, police said. Criminals will often change a single letter or number in the email or website address that make it seem legitimate.
For example, bank0famerlca.com may seem official at first glance, but two letters were changed, the “i” to a “l” that is more obvious and the “o” to a “0” that is more subtle depending on the typeface.
Police also ask locals to call them to report any suspicious online interactions and before giving out any money online.
“We encourage people to say something early and often before they start sending money,” Kerzman said. “Contact local [your] local police department, if [you] feel like you’re being scammed, prior to sending any money to anybody for any reason.”
A plugged-in population
Unfortunately, criminals have more ways to steal information as the internet becomes more prominent. Social media has had an exponential growth over the past two decades and as personal information becomes more public, criminals have more access to it.
“They can go into social media and find out where you went to high school, so they know your high school mascot,” Schrader said. “You posted pictures of your brand new puppy, so they know the name of your first pet. They can go into genealogy websites and find out where you used to live and your mother’s maiden name. The internet is a wonderful font of information— it can be used for good, but it can be used for bad as well.”
Cyber criminals can also bypass the individual and run a digital bank heist. They’ll steal information straight from banks, retail stores or even national credit bureaus as seen in the 2017 Equifax hack— leaving millions exposed to identity theft all at once.
“The crooks are getting more and more sophisticated,” Schrader said. “There is a lot of very smart sophisticated people who can make huge amounts of money. So there is an incredible incentive for them to constantly be innovating and therefore we all have to be really really vigilant.”
While these large-scale hacks aren’t preventable on an individual level, Schrader said there are simple ways to guard against identity theft and lower risk.
“We all can be victims of cyber crime and you don’t want to realize you were wrong when it’s too late,” Schrader said. “So there are a lot of simple actionable steps that we propose that people take in order to help keep themselves safe.”
Lock your digital doors
The easiest way to keep information safe is to “lock down your log in.” Many services offer password management systems that allow users to keep their passwords in one secure location. This way, the user only needs to remember a single password to access all their other passwords.
The second step is creating long passwords that are difficult to crack.
“You need to have good passcodes or passphrases,” Schrader said. “The passwords don’t have to be all [jumbled] stuff, although that’s a good idea… but you want to make it hard to crack.”
Schrader mentioned song lyrics or nursery rhymes as suggestions for a secure but memorable password.
“For example, ‘Maryhad1littlelamb!’… It’s longer than something that’s easy to hack and you can easily remember it,” Schrader said.
Another easy way to make computers and smartphones more secure is to “keep a clean machine.”
Large tech companies often update their computer or smart phone operating systems, but they’re also keeping the security systems up to date.
“All of these [companies] see all these threats and find ways to patch the system and make it safer,” Schrader said. “Well they’ve taken it to your door, but you have to bring it over the threshold. You need to update your machine.”
Keeping a clean machine is especially important on smart phones that have thousands of apps, all with their own security updates. Schrader recommends deleting unused apps or apps that may have been downloaded by a grandchild or child.
“It’s been sitting on your phone and it just gathers information about you, it maybe insecure and the site is being hacked,” Schrader said. “So just get rid of it. If your kid or grandkid ever asks you to [get it] again, then just download it again.”
Schrader emphasized that while criminals are getting more sophisticated, there are also easy ways for people to protect themselves.
More information on NCSAM can be found online at staysafeonline.org. If locals think they may be a victim of identity theft or another crime, they can contact police and make a federal complaint at www.ic3.gov.
“It’s always going to be a cat and mouse game. There’s too much money at stake for the crooks not to keep trying,” Schrader said. “[But] I don’t want [people] to be overconcerned or stop using the internet. I want them to stop, I want them to think about what they’re doing and then connect in a way that’s meaningful, after they own their online presence and realize that they have a shared responsibility.”