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6 Tips to Prevent Hackers and Phishing

Coastal Computer - Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sometimes the weakest link in the IT chain is not the security protocols in place, or the handling of devices, it’s you! Quite often, hacking and phishing — two names for malicious computer attacks — exploit people rather than relying on some complex technical feat.

The worst cases of hacking and phishing use both: a complex technical exploit, such as virus or malware, combined with exploiting the people using the computer or device. The well-known "FBI virus" is a classic example of a hacking technique that uses both:



Of course the original popup generated by the virus did not include 'FAKE', this is a warning for your protection. The FBI virus was transmitted as a piece of malware that infected people's computers through websites and email, that was the technical exploit. More importantly, in the above screenshot, you can see well known logos for the FBI, and also for other retailers, including CVS, 7-11, and Rite Aid. None of these retailers or the FBI were a part of this, however their logos were used to take advantage of the weakest link in computer security...people.

The text of this popup malware instructs the person using the computer that they need to pay a fine of $200 to receive access to their computer again. The popup goes on to say the person must visit one of the retailers and use the payment method, Moneypak, to pay for the "fine". This virus has also been called the "MoneyPak" virus for this reason.

The text of this popup malware instructs the person using the computer that they need to pay a fine of $200 to receive access to their computer again. The popup goes on to say the person must visit one of the retailers and use the payment method, Moneypak, to pay for the "fine". This virus has also been called the "MoneyPak" virus for this reason.

To protect yourself from all but the latest hacking and phishing exploits, you can update your anti-virus, software, and operating system. This will prevent viruses and malware from getting on your computer in the first place. But, what about the exploits that take advantage of people, such as using official logos on a fake popup to convince people it's real? The following tips will keep you from being the weakest link in your IT security chain:

#1 Keep your anti-virus, software, and operating system up to date

We know we already mentioned this directly above, but it's worth mentioning again. When you put off updating your computer to tomorrow because you have a big presentation or a big sale you're working on, you're inviting trouble. When a virus locks your computer or a malware corrupts your files, you won't be able to deliver the presentation or close that big sale. Some of our clients are on managed plans that keep all of their systems up to date. If you're not on a managed plan, you should install any automatic updates, and also check on a regular basis manually for any new updates to your anti-virus and software installed on your system. Out of date apps such as java, flash, and older web browsers can leave you vulnerable.

#2 Look before you leap

In the last step we mentioned installing automatic updates. This is a great way to transition to our next point. This is the most important point after making sure everything is up to date: always carefully examine any windows that suddenly appear, emails you receive, including emails with attachments from unknown senders, and any links or ads on websites you visit.

Some viruses in the past have even appeared as fake automatic updates from Windows. However, the icon bubble and some elements were slightly different. There is another virus that actually pretends to be a Windows security program!

Looking at the screenshot above, it's quite challenging to see that this is not a real Microsoft product. This particular virus fools people into buying the "Microsoft Advanced Security Center" program or activating "Ultimate protection". They use many elements of the Windows interface to make you think it's real. A quick Google search would reveal that Microsoft doesn't sell a product by either of those names.

Part of the challenge is that computers are constantly throwing notifications at us, so we click to make them go away. This is one of the ways hackers take advantage of people, some people will simply click so they can carry on writing their word document, or browsing a website. However, you should be mindful of any popup, especially popups regarding viruses or security. Look at the name, and then check — through another computer if possible — whether it's an actual product.

#3 Don't click on emails or download attachments from unknown senders

We can extend this same principle to emails and websites. For emails, never open an attachment unless you know the sender. Sure, your office might always have UPS packages being delivered, but check that email to make sure it's truly intended for you. If it's a shipment you're not familiar with, check the UPS website before opening any emails. If the shipment is not there in your account, then it's a fake. This is only one example, but the same principle can be applied to fake emails that pretend to be from Amazon, PayPal, eBay, and other sites. Check your account on those sites for the activity before clicking on any emails. No activity mentioned on the site? Then you can safely delete the email.

Many websites that send emails frequently have specific practices so you can confirm they are genuine. This might include your full name in the email or a specific "from:" address. Follow the tips from each site to do your own sleuthing to make sure the email is legitimate.

There's one more old fashioned technique here too: pick up the phone and call. If you are really unsure, call the website customer service. It may be some time on hold, but better safe than sorry.

#4 Make sure the website connection is secure and don't click on unknown links

For websites, never click on a link or an ad that looks suspicious. When you are entering information into a website for banking, or purchasing an item, make sure you see that your browser is connected securely. Most browsers use some sort of lock icon to indicate that the connection is secure.

The Mozilla Firefox web browser in the screenshot above uses a green lock icon to show a secure connection and adds another measure of security, the area to the right of the lock icon shows whether the website identity has been verified. Most web browsers may show this at the top to right or left of the address bar.  Internet Explorer uses a small yellow or gold lock to the right of the address bar. Microsoft has more detail on checking that your connection is secure on their site here.

#5 Don't get hooked - never give your personal or banking information away

The name "phishing" comes from the idea of hooking people with bait to get them to provide their personal or banking information and then the hackers either sell this information or use it themselves to gain access to your accounts, sometimes transferring money way into foreign accounts. It sounds like something from a spy novel, but this is the reality of cybercrime these days.

Unless you are making an ecommerce purchase, you shouldn't need to enter billing information at any time on your computer. This should be an immediate red flag. When you are surfing online and you're asked to enter your personal information, remember that most reputable sites won't ask for a lot of information to sign up to their mailing list. Anything beyond your name or email should raise suspicion, some major social media sites ask for your birthday, when you see a dialog for your social security number, close the browser immediately unless you are on an official IRS or other tax related site such as TurboTax Online.

#6 Check the domain name

We mentioned running a Google search to see whether a fake popup was authentic. You can also do the same for domain names, and there are certain things to look out for:

The domain name: is not an authentic ebay domain.

The domain name: is an authentic ebay domain.

Can you spot the difference? Here again, it's not easy to see the difference. Hackers will use fake domains that look similar to the official domains. This is why it's important to look before you leap, take a pause when you feel something's not right. The difference has to do with what domain name immediately precedes the .com, or other extension such as .org.

In the above examples: would be a domain for the site located at is an actual domain for

Check also to be sure the extension at the end is the correct extension for the domain, .com for commerce sites, and .org for any non-profit sites. Some banking sites may use a .net extension. Importantly, make sure it's the same extension you saw the last time you accessed the site.

Protect Yourself from You When it Comes to Hacking and Phishing Attacks

We try not to think of ourselves as gullible. However, hackers use clever techniques that combine technical exploits and take advantage of familiar logos, brand names, and our desire to simply keep working or browsing on our computers so we'll click on something without thinking. Once you've got all your anti-virus, software and operating systems on your computers up to date, follow these tips so that you can reinforce the IT security you have in place, and you'll no longer be the weakest link in the chain.

For small businesses, we've prepared a 10-page PDF white paper which includes Advanced Directives for Protecting Your Business from Hacking and Phishing. We include the 6 Tips above in the 10-page PDF plus we provide straightforward steps to improve your security and further protect your information and assets. At Coastal, our goal is to keep you safe.