Hackers or crackers or online criminals—whatever you call them—are working every minute of every day creating new malware that scam users more effectively. But most of these threats are new arrangements of old tunes. So with the right protection and a little savvy, you can avoid just about every digital threat you face.
(Note: This article is for busy Internet users who are looking for information on how to protect their PCs and their families from malware. For more about the technical side of malware, read Alia’s excellent series “A quick & dirty guide to malware”.)
What is the threat?
The first malware typically vandalized PCs and destroyed files. But since the early 2000s, the primary motive for malware creation has been profit. Online criminals are after your banking information or your credit card numbers or your computer’s processing power. In the worst case scenario, they may even be after private information that could be used to extort you or harm your business. And these sorts of attacks generally have both financial and psychological costs.
The true costs of malware can include your data, your content, your time, your effort and your heartache.
Want a few examples of malware mayhem? Spyware tracks you for advertising purposes and slows down your computer doing so. Keyloggers monitors your every keystroke in an effort to steal your credit card information. Scareware imitates anti-virus software in an attempt to extort a quick payment from you. Ransomware takes your files and demand a ransom in return. Rootkits can turn you PC into a zombie computer and use it to send out email spam or to host illegal materials or to join in attacks on websites. There’s even a malware that exists just to create a fake login page for your bank’s website to steal your account information.
How does malware end up on your PC?
Generally you end up with malware because you installed it. And whether you installed it or not, malware can only work if the program runs without being shut down or deleted.
Malware works like most scams — it requires some conscious or unconscious help from its victims. Thus online criminals have to know more than computer coding. They have to know what mistakes users are likely to make so they trick people who have probably NEVER fallen for a scam in their real lives. And the best criminals can convince even cautious users to make one wrong click.
How do you end up downloading and installing malware? Sometimes malware gets packaged in with more legitimate software. Sometimes simply clicking on a fake error message can trigger a drive-by malware download. And you’re certainly aware of the classic method of disguising malware in an email attachment.
You put yourself at risk when you’re downloading from a disreputable source or a peer-to-peer network of strangers. Seeking out “free” stuff on the Internet can cost you time and money. And this is especially true if you’re browsing and downloading without proper protection.
How to protect yourself from malware
1. Make sure your PC is updated and secure
I hope you’re reading this sitting down because I have quite shocking news for you: the software on your PC isn’t perfect. It may contain exploits or security holes that make it possible for your machine to be infected easily. Software companies know their programs are not perfect. That’s why they release updates. Microsoft, Apple and Adobe all release dozens of updates every year. You need to make sure you have these updates on your applications running or you’re increasing your risk of infection. Our free Health Check software is a quick and easy way to make sure your PC is protected.
Of course, we also recommend always running updated Internet security that includes anti-virus, spyware and firewall. Browsing Protection is another layer of security that can keep you from clicking on the wrong links. If you don’t have Browsing Protection, you can use ours. Check any link for free.
2. Be very skeptical of random pop-up windows, error messages and attachments
Modern browsers have reduced the burden of pop-up windows. But they do still exist. Most pop-ups are far more annoying than harmful. But you might think of pop-ups like broken windows into a neighborhood you were walking through at night. It’s a sign that you should be on guard.
Avoid clicking on any pop-ups that imitate your Windows error messages or error messages that come up when you try to close out of a page. (Force quit out of the program, if necessary.) If any software begins to install itself, close out immediately and run a scan of your Internet security software. You can also use our Online Scanner for free.
Avoid opening attachments at all unless you were expecting them and they come from a source you trust. If you can’t verify the source or feel anxious about a particular attachment yet have to open it, you can download it to your hard drive and have your updated Internet security scan the file before you open it.
3. Remove spam from your life
If you get a piece of spam, let your mail software know. Identify it as spam. You could also unsubscribe but unsubscribe link have been used on rare occasions to trigger a malware attack. Better to let your software handle it. If you have a friend on Facebook who spreads spam or bad apps, let them know. And if they continue spreading spam, unfriend them. You are responsible for your social network. Refuse to associate with those people who are not responsible for theirs.
4. Think thrice before installing any new software
Installing software should never be an impulse decision. Some people say think twice before downloading any software from a source you do not trust 100%. I say think three time.
At the very least, Google the name of a product you want to install. If you’re at all uncertain about whether to click download, consult with a tech savvier friend or your company’s IT guy.
When you install software, you could invite in a nasty predator that won’t leave until it’s done some serious damage. So think about installing software with a bit of the same sort of caution you use when deciding to let someone into your home.
5. Behave online as you would in real life
There’s an old saying in my family: “Don’t go licking the floors of a hospital.” What it means is: “Use your common sense.” You have a natural sensor in your brain that tells you when something feels dicey or unsafe. Trust your gut.
With the right software running and a willingness to step back when you feel uncertainty, you keep your PC and your life malware free.
CC image by Anonymous9000
Mikko Hypponen is one of the world’s most prominent cyber security experts. Described as a “virus hunter” in a Vanity Fair profile called “The Code Warrior”, Hypponen has spent nearly 25 years with F-Secure protecting people from computer viruses, worms, trojans, and other types of malware. In 2011, Hypponen travelled to Pakistan to meet the men behind the first known PC virus – Brain.A. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnedOWfPKT0&w=560&h=315] The Brain virus was released in January of 1986, making January 2016 the 30th anniversary of this milestone in malware history. I thought it would be interesting to reach out to Mikko and ask him about other families of malware that standout as being noteworthy. So here’s Mikko’s list of some of the most infamous malware families (including viruses, worms, trojans, etc) that’ve pestered, frustrated, and even extorted computer users over the past few decades. 1990 Form – Form was a common computer virus identified in 1990, and for several years, was arguably the most prominent computer virus in the world. Spread through 3.5” floppy disks, it infected millions of computers throughout the world, and is possibly one of the most widespread viruses in history. 1992 Michelangelo – Michelangelo earns a place on the list for being the first truly global virus scare. It was named after the famous artist because the virus remained dormant until March 6 (the artist’s birthday), when it would awaken and overwrite sections of infected hard disks, thereby making the information inaccessible and the computer unusable. The virus was never particularly prominent compared to some of its contemporaries, but its destructive nature and subtlety helped spread Michelangelo Madness throughout the globe. 1995 Concept – Concept was the very first macro virus – a type of virus that infects applications such as Microsoft Word. It was a very prominent security concern in the mid-nineties, and even though it was successful in propagating itself organically during this time, it hasn’t been seen in over a decade. As the first macro virus, it was notable in that it spread by hiding itself as a Word doc and then infecting computers as those documents were shared. By using Word, it could use both Windows PCs and Macs to spread infections, as the software could run on both platforms. 1999 Melissa – Melissa, supposedly named after an exotic dancer, was a computer virus that sent infected Word documents to contacts in victims’ Outlook address book. While the virus was not designed to be particularly destructive, its rapid proliferation through the Internet wreaked considerable havoc on corporate servers and infrastructure. Some accounts claim that it infected twenty percent of computers globally, and the man eventually convicted of releasing the virus into the wild admitted to causing eighty million dollars in financial losses. 2000 Loveletter – Loveletter, also widely known as ILOVEYOU, was a prominent email worm that was able to spread itself throughout the globe in a matter of hours by promising victims a little bit of love. Disguising itself as a chain, love-themed email to recipients helped it quickly spread from its Filipino origin through Asia, Europe and North America. To this date, it is one of the largest malware outbreaks of all time, and responsible for an estimated 5.5 billion dollars of damage. 2001 Code Red – Code Red was the first fully-automated network worm for Windows. As in users would not have to interact with a machine in order to spread the infection. Code Red’s most infamous day was July 19th, 2001, when it successfully infected 300,000 servers. The worm was programmed to spread itself on certain days, and then execute distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on others, and was used against several different targets (including The White House). 2003 Slammer, Lovsan, and Sobig – Ok, so there’s three here and not just one. But they all occurred very close together, and unfortunately, all three were worms responsible for massive, global malware outbreaks. Slammer targeted servers so it’s presence wasn’t readily apparent to end users (save some lagging when they were attempting to access an infected server). Lovesan, however was able to infect end users running Windows ME or Windows XP, and use the infected machines in DDoS attacks. Sobig spread itself through email and network drives, and contained a trojan in order to cause more headaches for infected users. However, it appears that the trojan feature did not function as expected. These three worms infected millions of machines, and made headlines all over the world. 2004 Sasser – A computer worm that can be considered as the last large “hobbyist” outbreak. This is significant as it signaled the end of an era when most malware was written by people who were simply curious to see what the malware could do. Nowadays, malware has a more specific, insidious purpose, such as stealing information or making money. 2006 Warezov – A two-year email worm campaign perpetuated by professional criminals, Warezov gained notoriety for downloading new versions of itself from remote servers – sometimes as frequently as every 30 minutes, according to a 2006 interview with Mikko. 2007 Storm Worm (also called Small.dam) – Storm Worm was a trojan that was spread as an attachment to spam emails. But more importantly, it was a combination of complex and advanced virus techniques that criminals were able to use to make money by using infected machines as part of a botnet. 2013 Cryptolocker – A notorious ransomware family, Cryptolocker was spread through malicious email attachments, as well as the infamous Gameover Zeus botnet. Infected victims would find their hard drives suddenly encrypted, essentially locking them out of their devices and data until they paid a ransom to the perpetrators. While the FBI, in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies and security companies (including F-Secure), were able to disrupt the operation, the perpetrators were able to use Cryptolocker to extort about 3 million dollars from victims before being stopped. Other notable mentions include the 2005 Sony rootkit (for being distributed on Sony BMG CD-ROMs on their behalf), the still prominent Downadup worm from 2008 (for infecting millions, including armed forces of several countries and police departments), and the well-known Stuxnet virus from 2010 (for both its sophistication and its apparent state-sponsorship). If you want to know more about the history of computer viruses, you can check out Computer Invaders: The 25 Most Infamous PC Viruses of All Time!
This TED talk is so hilarious that I just have to share it with you. Watch it! British comedian James Veitch is engaging in the noble art of scam baiting, or scamming the scammers. The same as this site is dedicated to, or when I almost sold my boat to Mexico. I guess most or all of you already know how to spot an advance payment scam, aka. Nigerian scam. But James has some more to offer here. He’s making two important points, in addition to the excellent entertainment value. People often warns about engaging in any kind of conversation with these scammers. They are after all criminals and it’s safest to steer clear of them. I disagree, just like James. The people behind this kind of scams is not exactly the violent drug mafia. As a matter of fact, anyone who can use e-mail and Google Translate can set up a scam like this. And they are located in some poor remote country, typically in Africa. So it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would start hunting down people who play with them. That would disrupt their everyday business and cut profits, cost money and introduce the risk to get caught. But I do discourage people from engaging in scam baiting under their real identity. Set up a new mail account under a false name and never reveal any real contact info to them. You can reply from a different address than where you got the original spam. They are pumping out millions of spam messages and will not even notice the changed address. This adds an additional layer of security. And more important, it keeps your real inbox free of spam. Use their own tactic. Create a false identity with name, address, profession and country of residence. Stick to that story and make sure not a single bit of it is true. Read more about how to scam bait at 419eater.com. The other point is that scam baiting is a good deed. It keeps the scammers busy and ties up their resources. Resources that otherwise would have been used to scam a real victim and cause real damage. A single scam baiter can’t of course save the world, but they would probably shut down if all of us spent an hour a week scam baiting. And it can be fun so why not? A good scam baiter can be a real pain in the a** for the scammers. Be prepared to get some threats and evil language when they realize what is going on. Consider that as a trophy, a proof that you did it right. Don’t feel bad for them. They did after all contact you with the sole purpose to scam you for money. Safe scam baiting, Micke Image: Screenshot from ted.com
This is part of a series of posts about what security experts think will happen in 2016. F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan spends a lot of his time thinking about how people expose themselves to online risks. Whenever you download an app, click on a link, or open an email, there’s potential security problems that most people never even think about. But not Sean. It’s part of his job to understand how these things actually work, and what people should be doing to keep their devices and data safe from online threats. Here’s a quick look at what security issues Sean thinks people and companies will have to contend with in the upcoming year. “2016 will be remembered as the year of extortion.” Sean’s already predicted that the future of online threats will revolve around extortion. That is, criminals will be investing in scams that see people and businesses paying a “fee” to avoid being victimized by online threats. Ransomware is a well-known example of this trend. It’s malware that locks (either through encryption or other means) people’s devices unless a “ransom” is paid to the perpetrators. “Criminals will continue to figure out ways to extort people and businesses,” said Sean. “The returns we’ve seen extortionists getting on ransomware demonstrates just how profitable the malware sector can be for criminals. Increasing use of social networking tools like Linkedin are also giving online criminals a way to collect data and research potential blackmail targets, and given developments like these, I’m expecting criminal enterprises involving extortion to evolve throughout 2016.” Sean has pointed out in the past that crypto-ransomware, and many other types of online threats, are actually very sophisticated criminal enterprises. They often have a level of service that rivals what legitimate companies offer their customers, making them very profitable for criminals. In fact, the FBI advises ransomware victims to simply pay to have their computers unlocked (but F-Secure Labs has created some useful guidelines that people can follow to remove some police-themed ransomware variants). “We’ll still be talking about ad blocking at this time next year.” Ad blocking became an explosive topic after Apple built content blocking capabilities into iOS 9 earlier in the year. While it seems like a good idea for consumers, ad blocking caused waves after a report pointed out that publishers stand to lose billions due to ad blocking technologies. Publishers that use native advertising, or apps (like Apple News) to push content to their audience, will be largely unaffected. But publications relying on web browsers have become vocal critics of the practice, even though security experts (and even tech journalists) suggest that ad blocking may be in the best interests of consumers. “Ad blocking is going to continue to be an issue because there’s been no real progress on solving the problems that ad blocking is supposed to address,” says Sean. “The problematic connection between online advertising and tracking is still there, so there’s going to be demand for ad blockers until this changes. Plus, malvertising is still a huge security concern that ad blocking can help with, so using these apps is a good way for consumers to minimize online risks and have a better online experience, especially on mobile devices.” “Use of end-to-end encryption will increase in 2016.” Governments have been toying with the idea of asking tech companies to work around encryption to support national security interests. However, many companies and security experts are opposed to this, as encryption allows information to stay safe from criminals and other agents looking to collect information to use for less than altruistic purposes (for example, extortion, discrimination, targeted advertising). End-to-end encryption is one approach to securing digital communications that allows information to be encrypted by the sender and then decrypted by the receiver, which prevents anyone in between those two points (such as the company providing the service or app) from accessing the personal data contained in the messages. Whatsapp and Apple’s Facetime are popular examples of messaging apps that use end-to-end encryption. According to Sean, use of these kinds of apps will increase in 2016, despite pressure for companies to offer weaker encryption to end users. “The security benefits of end-to-end encryption are indisputable, and all the arguments to the contrary are really weak. But the real driver for this will be business, because it’s the best way for companies to provide secure services to users. It’s cheaper and more secure, so it’s a better option for both app developers and users.”