Thwarting the Scammers

While the internet isn’t the wild west that it used to be, it is certainly akin to a dangerous city that should be approached with some basic cautionary travel rules. Scams are ever present. Thieves like the anonymity a computer connection offers and, for that reason alone, shady deals and malware infected links are abundant. Stories of emptied bank accounts are common place so it behooves one to heed some basic security advice. None of this advice is from the secret book of knowledge possessed by us Internet Scamsengineers, it’s all just basic internet common sense. Or should I say uncommon sense…

Before I dive into the basic rules of internet security, you should read an entertaining story over at Dark Reading. As the story goes, a few dim witted scammers tried to scam a security researcher. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger to read but it does provide some mild entertainment. With an endless library of knowledge at ones fingertips you’d hope for smarter, more educated theives. So much for the theory of evolution. But I digress….

Rule #1 – Never *ever* give out personal information via email or to a website you don’t know. Ever. Never ever.

By personal information I mean your passwords, SS#, your telephone number, current employment or bank account data. Said rule applies to the internet as well as to the telephone. This has got to be the number one fax-pas of the average joe user. “But if I fill out this form, I get a $100 gift card!” Wrong. You get a few years worth of identity theft. Very few companies have an actual need for your personal information. Joe Bob’s Survey Site does not need it and if you hand it over then it’s just like handing a thief your car keys.

Bank of America once called me and required my social security number. I suspected it really was BofA due to a purchase I had just made minutes before but I still laughed at the agent on the phone. I made them give me a call-back number and then I verified that number with their fraud department [whose contact information was listed on their website].

Rule #2 – Anonymize Yourself (really, really well)

You may use your nickname of ‘Happy Unicorn’ on the internet but that doesn’t mean you’re anonymous. Odds are that you, like most people, use that same nickname every where. It takes mere minutes to Google a nickname and identify all the forums and postings associated with it. Yes, stalker fear may be a little bit extreme but how much information do you want prospective employers (or scammers) to know about you? Use multiple monikers with multiple email accounts (no less than two and preferably more). You can also take an additional precautionary step and get a Google Voice phone number; use it instead of your real number if you want to post a contact number for classifieds like Craig’s List. If you start getting unwanted calls, simply block them. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s also a throw away phone number you can have for free. Reverse look-ups are so common you’ll want a Google voice number (or two or four).

Rule #3 – Use a Virus Scanner

For some reason, people struggle with this basic rule and I speculate it’s because of the cost of renewals associated with McAfee and Norton. That 3yr old version of Norton Antivirus that you’ve installed isn’t doing you any good. Uninstall it and do yourself a favor, install the free version of Avira. I have used every virus scanner under the sun. It’s my professional opinion that Avira is (and has been for a decade) the top free virus scanner for home use. If you think you don’t need a virus scanner, I have an email attachment I’d like you to read 😉

Rule #4 – Use SpyBot

SpyBot, for those who don’t know, is a spyware, mal-ware, adware scanner and cleaner. It is *NOT* a virus scanner and your typical virus scanner does not scan for these things because it’s not designed to. Your virus scanner can not protect you from sleazy applications that YOU downloaded and installed with your admin credentials. I hate to use a crass analogy but it bears stating: a condom may protect you from STDs but it won’t protect you from a bad relationship! This is the difference between a virus scanner and SpyBot. Download SpyBot (just Google it because I’m too tired to cut & paste another link. Get it from Safer-Networking.) and run it [and update it] once a month or if you start experiencing computer slowdowns. This brings me to the next rule….

Rule #5 – Know What You Download & Install

I’m not sure why I’m getting frustrated in typing these last two rules because I’ve made a *lot* of pocket change cleaning peoples infected computers. I guess it just pains me to see people trash their perfectly good systems and lose all of their data. QUIT installing every application that some Facebook junkie invited you to. DO NOT CLICK the ‘next’ button without reading the screen and trying to understand what you are installing. If you are not 100% certain about what your doing, then don’t do it!! A vast number of scammers glean the data they need off of individuals who have installed infected applications on their system because they didn’t know what they were installing. Don’t be one of those people.

Rule #6 – Educate Yourself

I know, this is like teaching an old dog new tricks. Seriously though, civilization has entered a new era known as the internet age and, if you want to survive, you’re going to have to get with the program. Your ability to hit the power button and launch Outlook for your email isn’t going to cut it. You need to understand the fundamentals of computers, PC management and internet communications. I am by no means suggesting you re-enter college and trade in your four year Phrenology degree but if you don’t understand that ‘tool’ you’re using then you’re going to break it and/or someone is more apt to use it against you. Do yourself a favor and pick up a few Dummies books.

These rules will not protect you from ever getting scammed or hacked. Life is uncertain like that. However, they will GREATLY lessen the odds that you’ll have to deal with any headaches. You already practice basic security: you lock your car, you lock the doors to your home and you don’t go out to strange neighborhoods at night to wander around. Just extend those basic principles to your electronic life. You’ll feel safer and you will be safer.

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