Playing it safe: Tips & tricks toward better cyber security

Oct 6, 17 • 5enses, Two-bit ColumnNo Comments

Justin Agrell, aka quadcricket, and his dog Monroe. Courtesy photo.

By Justin Agrell

With all of the news of hackers hacking and identities being spirited away, you might feel a little uneasy about your knowledge of proper security measures. I’ve compiled a collection of advice to begin you on your quest to becoming more hacker resistant and, hopefully, allow you to sleep a little better at night.

We begin with a stern look and finger-wagging toward those who are over-broadcasting their lives on social media. While this mostly applies to younger, less wary generations, it helps if you’re leery of providing personal information to websites. While stalking is certainly a scary consideration, most of us are far more likely to either have our identity stolen or our house robbed when the world knows we’re out and about eating delicious delicacies and snapping senseless selfies. There’s nothing wrong with posting every meal and adventure online — just make sure you limit who can view your content.

Many websites and services use security questions as a form of authentication. These days, figuring out Fluffy’s name or what schools you’ve attended is trivial. Private investigators have never had it easier, and it’s up to you to choose those questions that don’t have easily discoverable answers. Also consider — and I’ll try not to shock you too much — that you can fib, jumble answers, or just enter gobbledegook for security questions. As long as you record the answer or use some other trick to remember what you submitted, this option is a far better solution.

Your password is your first line of defense. I’ve written about password creation techniques before, so I won’t go into detail here, but the most important thing to remember is to not use the same password more than once. When using important websites, only check them at home or at other trusted locations and never, ever check them on unsecured public wireless networks. Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days. Use saved passwords if you must to avoid someone recording you in public and being able to decipher your passwords. When you enter pin numbers when purchasing items or visiting ATMs, lightly touch extra keys so that your heat signature doesn’t give away your pin. (Yes, some hackers can tell the exact order of your pin from how warm the keys are.) Lock your phone and use a long pin or your fingerprint to unlock it to keep people out. Swipe patterns leave streaks on your phone’s screen and can be guessed quite easily.

Shred, burn, or otherwise destroy important documents. Don’t think that just because you have thrown a document away that it magically disappears and takes your sensitive information with it. Some of the best hacker stories are about digging around in Dumpsters. Computers and copiers are included in this. If you must get rid of one, take it to a computer shop to have the drives wiped securely. Most places won’t even charge you.

When an email has a link, just open a browser and go to the web-page manually. This will make you immune to almost every kind of phishing scheme. In your web browser, you have a little less control over links but at least try to hover your mouse cursor over the link; it may show the location it’s pointing to. If it’s not what you expect, then don’t follow the link. Blocking ads with plug-ins like uBlock Origin and denying malicious scripts with add-ons like NoScript also stops most ad-based attacks in their tracks.

In the physical world, banks and credit card companies have started issuing debit and credit cards with radio-responsive identification. This enables a hacker with a strong enough antennae can read your card number right from your purse or wallet. You may not have one of these cards yet, but I still recommend you get a radio-blocking wallet/bill fold/purse so you’re already protected. The most common card skimmers that hackers use aren’t attached well. When you go to fill up your gas tank or retrieve money from an ATM, remember to grab the card reader and give it a little tug. That simple trick might save you the trouble of dealing with the aftermath of a stolen card number.

One of the less popular methods of security is obscurity. Don’t use the most popular things and you’re less of a target. Hackers want their attack to work on as many devices as possible. The current most popular desktop operating system is Microsoft Windows. If you want to immediately improve your safety, you can simply change operating systems. Likewise, moving off of the most used search engine (Google) or web browser (Google Chrome) can only help you.

When you go shopping online, it’s important to use trusted sites. Sites like Amazon, Ebay, and Newegg have taken large strides in fighting for your safety as a consumer. Once you have sites you trust, make sure to bookmark/favorite them and use the bookmarks to open them. After you’re done spending money at your favorite site, make sure to take a glimpse at your bank account. You may cringe, but double charges and strange transactions need to be monitored to make sure you haven’t been compromised.

After all of that, if you still aren’t at ease, you can try these last few things. Make a habit of regularly checking for security updates for your software and operating system, switch to a DNS host that has built-in security like OpenDNS (see OpenDNS.Com), and look into a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to further lock things down.

Good luck on your security adventure. That’s right: No joke, no witty banter, just good luck.



Justin Agrell has been a certified IT technician since 2005. He loves Linux, adventure motorcycling, and computer gaming. To get in touch, just email him at Justin@U4E.US.

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