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Computer Security Makeover for the Holidays

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From a computer security perspective, 2016 was a particularly nasty year

Yahoo! revealed details of two separate intrusions that happened back in 2013 but were only disclosed over the past few months. The first intrusion compromised 500 million accounts. If that wasn’t bad enough, the second intrusion compromised 1 billion accounts!

The US election cycle was plagued by hacks of the Democratic and Republican campaigns’ computer systems, with releases of information possibly being a contributing factor in the ultimate results.

Such intrusions are usually attributed to hackers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the real cause may be simple “social engineering” – a process whereby employees of the affected companies are duped into revealing login credentials by responding to fake requests for information or being careless with passwords or online remarks.

Your own personal information may be at risk if it happens to be stored on a system that is compromised. The strongest advice I can share is to never say or do anything in an email or online that you wouldn’t want strangers to know about. As this past year’s US elections have shown, once you share something online, it can come back to bite you many years later.

When it comes to personal computers, Windows-based systems – due to their sheer numbers – have historically been the target of the most aggressive intrusion attempts. As a result, those same systems have a wide array of available protection options that are quite effective. If you already own or will receive a Windows-based computer this holiday season, make sure to protect it with a well-regarded anti-virus program. There are even some free products that do an excellent job.

In 2015, we saw the rise of Ransomware as a threat to personal and business data, and that threat continued with a vengeance into 2016. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Ransomware is an insidious form of virus that usually arrives via email attachment or infected USB drive. If you open the email attachment or infected file from the USB drive, the virus scrambles the important files on your computer and even the hard drives connected to your home or business network, making the information unreadable unless you agree to pay a ransom. Fortunately, there are now some effective anti-ransomware programs that can be used to minimize the threat. I recommend that everyone install anti-ransomware software in addition to a good anti-virus program, just in case they come across a new strain that is not yet blocked by anti-virus software.

The Yahoo! breaches have provided criminals with personal names, email addresses and passwords, so they are able to masquerade as your friends.  Therefore, heading into the new year, be a bit more skeptical of emails received from strangers, and even those you receive from people you know – if those people are not in the habit of sending you emails. Prepare yourself in advance with good anti-virus and anti-ransomware software, and if you’re not already keeping backups of your important files, this might be a good time to start.

Here are some recommendations for computer safety (see Important Disclaimer below):
Free anti-virus programs are available from Avira, Avast and AVG. While not as effective as Avira, I like Avast because it has fewer ads.
Free anti-ransomware programs are available from Cybereason and Bit Defender.   I have recently switched to Cybereason.
Several free backup programs are described in this article from Tech Radar.  I use EaseUS products and recommend them to clients. **

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Jack Eisenberg,

Safe and Secure Computing

Important Disclaimer: Virus and Ransomware variations are released often. No program can offer 100% protection. Use of any of the software recommended here is without warranty and at your own risk. Protection is better than no protection, but is not a guarantee of safety. 

** Disclosure:  I have used EaseUS products for several years.  I like their product so much, I volunteer some of my spare time to provide technical support on their self-help support forum.  Although I am not compensated for my efforts and do not earn a commission for recommending this software to my clients, my efforts have been acknowledged by the company in the form of a perpetual license for my own computer.  Perpetual licenses can be purchased for approximately $35.00 US above the cost of a standard license.