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Friday, July 5, 2013

Security for Normal People, Part 6: Social Engineering

Have you ever received an email that looks as if it's coming from a friend, but for some reason you get the feeling it may not have? Listen to that little voice! There is a good chance that the hair on the back of your neck is rising for good reason. There are numerous social engineering scams that people fall prey to all the time. They go something like this:

1. You get an email from what looks like a friend with a header like, ″OMG! What did you do last night?! I have the video!″ You follow a link to what looks like YouTube or some other similar site, but wait! The video won't play, because you don't have the latest version of Flash or some other, similar program. ″Click here to download,″ the link says, or, ″Click here to update.″ Don't do it! You'll probably be downloading a virus. (See Part 5 of this article series, under, ″Be careful where you download from.″)

2. You get an email from what looks like a friend that has a header like, ″Help! I'm stuck here & all my money got stolen!″ You open it up and it, indeed, does look as if it came from your friend's account. The email claims that they're over in Europe or someplace far away from wherever they live, their wallet/purse was stolen, and they just need you to wire them $1,000 and they'll pay you back when they get home. Now, for some of you, this scenario might be entirely plausible, and for all I know it's happened to someone you know. But don't assume that it's true. At the very least, check out their story. Call them, and if you can't reach them, call their family. Just don't send any money until and unless you can confirm that an honest-to-God friend actually needs your help.

3. You downloaded something you don't even remember having downloaded, but you must have, right? Because now you've got a virus! How do you know? Because a pop-up window tells you just that. But, ″lucky″ for you, there's a solution right at hand! Because right there, blinking and flashing at you from your monitor, is a company that can help! They'll eradicate that virus, and they'll do it for free! All you have to do is . . . you guessed it! Download this file! Right here, click now! Unfortunately for you, if you fall for this one, you had no virus . . . or at least you didn't . . . until you just downloaded one in the so-called ″cure.″ Now you do have a virus. And on top of that, whatever you have just downloaded, thinking it was the cure to all your computer-ills, also has just opened up your system to the Bad Guys, who have installed a keystroke recorder (allowing them to record every password to every account you access, from your Facebook password to the online store for your insurance's prescription drug program to your bank account), not to mention software that will transmit that information back to them. And now, they will also be using your home PC (and thus your IP address, or what is basically your internet telephone number) to hack into someone else's computer and rip them off. They may very well send emails using another scam to everyone in your phone book! Because that's the way these kinds of scammers operate.

4. You get an email from ″your bank,″ saying that their computers have been hacked and that they need you to verify your log-in and password. Only, it's not from your bank, that link in the email isn't really your bank's website. Look closely. Squint. It will be exactly the same except for a few letters. It will be or BankofAmerica.US instead of BankOFAmerica.COM. When you look at it, it will look genuine, it will have all the normal logos and such. But it is most definitely NOT BofA's actual site. So, when you don't look and just log in, and use your password . . . they know what that password is now, so they'll go and drain your account. And you're lucky if they stop with that.

5. Your computer freezes up, and nothing will work. You don't know why. Until you see a window pop up that tells you that you've been caught! You've downloaded porn or pirated movies or take your pick of any number of embarrassing things. Any of which you may or may not have done. But, OMG! This isn't just any warning . . . oh, no! It's from the FBI! And the message says that your computer has been locked because of these so-called illegal activities. However, it goes on to say, lucky for you there is just a small fine for this first offense, and if you pay it, they will, they promise, unlock your computer. All you have to do to go out and purchase $300-$500 of Money Paks and send them the long code on the back of the card. Whew! That's all? And they won't come and arrest you? Certainly worth it, right?

Whether or not you've done whatever they say you've done, don't fall for this one! This is one of the latest forms of scam, known as, ″The FBI Money Pak Virus,″ or, ″The FBI Money Pak Ransomware.″ Because that's exactly what they're doing: holding your computer hostage. It may seem scary and your first instinct might very well be to just pay them what they want, but whatever you do, do not pay them!

As with any scam like this, panic is your enemy. Stop and think it through.

As with other malware, the whole point is to get control of your computer, whether it's to get money from you, to get your account information (by which they can rob you blind), or to use your computer to scam others (usually starting with everyone in your address/phone book), or some combination of these goals. If you pay them, not only do you have no way to know they'll even unlock your computer, but there is also no guarantee that it be clean (there is, in fact, very little chance of that!).

This virus, like any other – and, just to be clear, it is a virus – needs to be removed in the only way certain to eradicate a virus: reformatting your hard drive. (More on that further down. . . .)

Let me make this as clear as I can, because this is vital information:

No matter what anyone tells you, the only way to be CERTAIN you get rid of a virus is to REFORMAT YOUR HARD DRIVE!

If you take your computer to a shop, or you have someone come in to fix it, and they claim they can be certain you're virus-free without reformatting, either they have an exaggerated opinion of themselves, or they're lying through their teeth. Tell them, ″never mind,″ and get out of there, thank them and say you'll think about their offer to help, or whatever you want to say, but don't let them near your computer.

This leads me directly into another scheme I've seen advertised

6. Do not fall for,,,, or any other ″registry cleaner″ or ″PC tuneup″ software. It's a scam. All of it. They claim they can get rid of viruses, they claim they will speed up your computer, but at best they are a waste of your money and/or time, and at worse they are malware.

There are things that can be done to speed up your computer to a certain extent, like deleting unused programs, deleting browser histories, or even maximizing your PC's memory. But you don't need these programs to do that, and you certainly don't need to pay for that (well, adding memory will cost you, but that might be worth it, depending upon your computer and what you need it to do).
So, what I'm trying to say here is that you should be suspicious. Question claims and ask yourself if it seems reasonable. Does it seem reasonable that the FBI would a) let you off for what ″they″ purport is a serious crime (I mean, that's implied, is it? Why would the FBI be bothered with crimes that aren't serious, right?) with just a fine? And would the FBI want you to pay said fine by Money Paks​​? Seems unlikely, now that I've put it that way, doesn't it?

Also, and this is important (at least you know that I think it's important, since I've given it the Triple Emphasis Package (bold, italics, and underlining):

When you purchase a computer, make sure you either order, or make, rescue discs!

These are the discs that you often have to pay a few bucks extra for (when I ordered through Dell, they threw them in at my request this last time, but before that I've had to pay an extra $15 for these). They are used in case you get a virus and must reformat your hard drive. Sometimes if you don't have the option to purchase them, when you do the initial set-up of your computer it will ask you if you'd like to make these, and you most definitely should! However, personally, I won't even buy a computer without rescue discs. If they're not offered free or at a minimal fee (for the discs themselves and the shipping), then I don't even want that company's computer.

Without rescue discs, you cannot reformat and recover your computer from a virus!

Thus, they are vital. Because (and this is very important, so I'm repeating it!) . . .

No matter what anyone tells you, the only way to be CERTAIN you get rid of a virus is to REFORMAT YOUR HARD DRIVE!

If you don't have rescue discs, and you need to reformat, at best, you can borrow some from a friend with the same version of Windows, as long as you have your registration keys (both from Windows and from any other software you have purchased). You should have these listed somewhere in a hard copy, Just In Case the worst happens. At the worst, if you don't have rescue discs, you may have to actually go and purchase a copy of Windows or other software. (Before you resort to this, call your OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer – or whoever you purchased the computer from, like Dell, in my case. They may be willing to either provide the discs (again, there may be a small fee involved), or give you your registration keys, so you can borrow a friend's discs and use your own license. It doesn't hurt to ask, anyway!)

This is why it's so very important to be prepared. And by prepared, I mean backed up (see Part 3 of this series of articles). If you have a milder virus, you may be able to get some documents off of your computer before you are forced to reformat it. If you haven't backed up, and you get a virus that locks up your computer, like the FBI Money Pak Virus, you may not have that luxury. You may have to wipe everything. Which means that all of your user-generated data – documents; photos of your kids, dogs, and cats; bookmarks/favorites; that novel-in-progress you're halfway through writing; and pretty much everything you've used your computer for . . . ever . . . will be gone. And I mean gone!

But before you resort to reformatting without a backup, I would strongly advise you to check with your friend the computer guru, your neighborhood computer geek, or, if you really know no one else, a local PC shop (which are more and more rare these days) or someone at Best Buy or Fry's. Because once that data is gone, it's gone.

The best way to avoid all of this drama, though, is to not fall for these schemes in the first place. But now you know the kinds of things you might encounter, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. So, once again I will say . . .

Be suspicious!

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