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Cyber Threats: Prevention is Key

by Lindsey Stetson, CFP®

Websites and smart devices have increased in sophistication, allowing us to perform personal and financial tasks from the palm of our hands. The pandemic has caused many of us to leverage virtual options, either out of safety concerns or convenience. We can order groceries, meet with our doctors, and purchase cars in our pajamas. While our new e-lifestyle has led to more efficiency in our lives, we must acknowledge that it has created an additional way to become targets of criminals.

How Common are Cyber Attacks?

A Clark School study at the University of Maryland determined that cyber-attacks occur on average every 39 seconds which affect 1 in 3 Americans every year. This nearly constant rate of attacks means our guards can never be down. Hackers are waiting for the opportunity to steal our personal information, banking information, and anything else they can use to profit.

Who Does Cybercrime Hurt the Most?

While we hear about companies being attacked – remember the gas shortage caused by the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in May of 2021? – it’s average consumers who are hurt the most. The preferred victims of cybercriminals are 60+ years old but anyone can fall prey.

How Can You Stay Safe?

Do not click on links or open attachments in unsolicited emails or texts.

Phishing emails often attempt to mimic organizations or people you know. Even if you know the sender, study the email address, the wording used in the body of the email, and hover the mouse over links to confirm the destination before proceeding. Verify that the email or text is legitimate by asking the person who sent the message to you. Clicking on links and opening attachments may install malware on your device which can steal your information or even hijack your computer.

Be wary of urgent requests

Criminals know that stress can affect how we make decisions. By creating a rushed situation, they know that people are less likely to follow processes and procedures. A popular tactic is to impersonate a utility company claiming that your bill is overdue and without immediate payment, your gas/water/electricity will be shut off. Another popular one is to pose as the IRS and claim that your debt must be settled immediately. The IRS and utility companies will never call or email you out of the blue and you do not have to give any personal information to anyone calling or emailing you.

Use strong, unique passwords

Using the same password across multiple websites increases your vulnerability to attack. Passwords should be long, contain unique characters, numbers, and upper- and lower-case letters. Don’t use easy to guess words like pet names, middle names or birthdates. These are clues that can be gleaned from social media posts. Encrypted password managers can be useful, so you only need to remember a single password. Enabling multi-factor authentication when available also makes it more challenging for someone else to log in as you.

Keep systems and software updated

Keeping your software (including a reliable anti-virus product) updated will ensure that you have the most current security features to keep you protected. You should update the operating systems and browsers on your computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. regularly.

Keep personal information secure

Documents containing your personal information should be shredded rather than thrown away. When in doubt, shred it! Store sensitive documents like tax returns in a secure location and do not email documents, such as bank statements, without encryption. Make sure your phone has a passcode or face scan enabled for access.

What if You Become a Victim?

Change your passwords

This is a no-brainer, but if you get hacked or have a data breach you should immediately change all of your passwords.

Monitor your accounts and credit reports

It’s important to pay extra attention to your account activity after a data breach. You can sign up for text alerts on your bank and credit card activity and you should check your statements closely. Check your credit reports for anything suspicious. It is possible to freeze your credit, which prevents any new credit accounts from being opened in your name. The drawback to this is that you are unable to apply for new credit too until the freeze is lifted.

Alert your financial institutions

Notifying relevant institutions of the data compromise allows them to be extra alert and scrutinize suspicious requests regarding your accounts. Trust Company of the South has several standard security measures in place for high-risk requests such as wire transfers and address changes but letting us know of the issue allows us to monitor for larger-scale data breaches across our clients.

Cybercriminals will always be innovative with their attacks but taking the above measures will go a long way in protecting you and your family.