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Friday, June 28, 2013

Security for Normal People, Part 5: Your Behavior

At the end of last week's article, I alluded to the idea that no software – anti-virus or otherwise – is going to mitigate your own bad behavior online. So what did I mean by that?

It occurs to me that there are things I do, or do not, do automatically because I know they are security risks. Now, having been online since . . . well, when I first got online, I was very young . . . Prodigy was still a thing (remember Prodigy? Anyone? Bueller?); being on CIS (CompuServe Information Systems) or GEnie (General Electric's answer to CIS) meant you were a geek (I was on both); modems were 1200 baud if you were lucky; Internet was dial-up only; and printers were dot matrix (ask your parents).

My point is that I've had a number of years to develop behaviors that are now so ingrained in me that I don't even think about them . . . behaviors that have kept me from having any major security issues. I've never had anything more serious happen than being infected with the odd virus every now and then, and much of that I owe to knowing what kind of behavior can be dangerous. It's a challenge to write this, since some of these things are completely unconscious at this point, but I'll give it a go. . . .

Be careful where you download from. You probably know this is important. But, though an anti-virus can alert you to problems once they've occurred, or warn you about risky behavior, it won't stop you from downloading that file or program. Why? Because if you want to download a new game or trial program, or whatever it might be, and your anti-virus tells you you can't, what is the first thing you'll do? Disable it! So then you have no protection. So the anti-virus will ask you if you are certain that you want to download it, it will warn you that it could give you a virus, but it won't stop you in the end. It's up to you to make sure that you're downloading from a reputable source, that the website is what it appears to be, and not a fake.

Be careful of fake sites that look like the real thing, and always check the URL (Uniform Resource Locator – also known as the website's address) to make certain it is genuine. If it says, ″″ instead of ″,″ you should run away! You'd be amazed at how many people don't notice, or worse, don't check. It's entirely possible to create a site that looks like the site you think you're visiting – logos, images and all but is really a fake. This is particularly dangerous if it's your bank or other financial-related site. This is one place where spelling really does count! If you get an email from what you think is your bank, and it has a link, don't click on that link! If you look closely, what you think is a link to Wells Fargo may be a link to ″″ - notice the spelling? Only one ″L″. It's the kind of thing that is easily-overlooked, and the Bad Guys know this. This type of link can be used to get you to log in to their fake site with your real password, which is then collected and used to drain your accounts. This is what is meant by, ″phishing.″

In fact, people so frequently are oblivious to this sort of ploy that some phishers, who are either lazy or cocky . . . or both . . . have even been known to use fake addresses like, ″″ in the links they send out in emails. If it's hidden in an HTML email – since you don't see the actual link – you should be able to see it in the address bar if you click on it and it opens up a new tab or window. Which brings to mind a few more things you should not do: don't click on links in emails (with few exceptions), and don't use HTML mail.

Never click on links in emails; type the URL in yourself, from scratch. If your bank or other financial institution, or any other important site such as these, emails you, they shouldn't put links in the email; frankly, they should know better at this point. But if you really believe it's from who you think it's from, and you need to log in to your account, do not click on the link! I can't stress this enough! What you should do is to open a browser page and type in the address yourself. Yes, I realize that can be a little inconvenient, but it's much better than suddenly having no money in your account and no way to pay your mortgage or rent, let alone your bills, isn't it?

Don't use HTML Email. Most people, it seems, use HTML in their mail. I suppose that's because they don't know why they shouldn't. But if you use text-only in your email, for one thing, it can clue you in to a fake link like I've described above. If you can't see the links, you have no chance at all of spotting a fake. An HTML link to, say, Bank of America, can be hidden behind the familiar logo. In other words, you click on what appears to be a genuine Bank of America logo . . . and it probably is . . .genuine in that the Bad Guys downloaded it directly from the Bank of America website. And yes, that's easy. I can do it. (And I'm not even a hacker, I'm just a person with lots of experience on the 'net who knows what's possible – though I don't always know how it's possible. But this time I do know.)

HTML email also carries a greater risk of virus. I won't go into the technical details, because that's not what this series of articles is about. Suffice it to say that HTML email is more dangerous in this respect than text.

Other reasons to not use HTML email seem obvious to me, but you may not know about them. Firstly, it's often slow. Why? It requires more bandwidth. Now, this may not seem important to you when you're on your high-powered desk-top, but if you're on Wifi, or a mobile phone network, you might be able to see the difference. Secondly, it often takes longer to appear than regular text, because it takes longer to load. In other words, it just uses up resources unnecessarily. Thirdly, you may not have any problems composing an email in HTML, but think about the recipients. Not everyone needs or wants your email with fancy backgrounds and pretty colors. (Personally I have my settings so that only text appears unless I click to load the rest.) What's more, there are still a lot of email apps that won't even read HTML email.

In the end, it's up to you whether or not to use and read HTML email, but knowing that text email is less likely to be a security risk, I hope you give this question some thought: do you even really NEED anything more than text in your email?! Does it make that much of a difference to you? If you can't answer an unequivocal, ″YES!″ to those questions, I strongly advise you to turn it off.

Another thing that people – especially younger people who have grown up with the internet and mobile phones – do that they should probably be more careful about is giving out information. People simply overshare information . . . about themselves, about their families . . . about all kinds of things. Without going into great detail (that might eventually become another article itself), let me just say here that it would be wise, before you post something on Facebook or Google Plus or even Path, before you Pin or Tweet or Share, and especially before you Snapchat (because just because you think it will go away, doesn't mean it actually does) . . . to ask yourself: do I really want to put this out their for all the world to see? Because on the internet, that's what you're doing. Regardless of where you post or how private you think it is, the rule of thumb is to never post anything you wouldn't want on the front page of the New York Times.

Once again, it looks like this is running long. So tune in next week for more about how your behavior can affect your security . . . and why you should be suspicious!

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