Cookies, Passwords, and Computerless Invasions

We disdain cookies and passwords so much that we expose our sensitive data to hackers who never need to invade our computers, phones, or tablets to get it. There’s so much information about each of us out in there, yet we use skeleton keys instead of padlocks to protect what we can.

You can adjust your cookie settings to limit tracking cookies, but website operators make it cumbersome – because they want advertisers and merchants to pay them for ways to track you across the internet and sell you stuff. Cookies get a lot of notoriety because of that, but they also serve useful purposes. They enable a site to direct you properly to the areas you need to go to and display appropriately for your browser and device.

Tracking cookies are another matter. They can tell anyone who plants a tracking cookie on your device where you go, and that’s creepy on the one hand and dangerous on the other.

I generally ignore all those cookie messages or just accept all cookies. I feel that many trackers already have information on me, and I am confident I’m savvy enough to avoid online traps. You should be, too, if you follow us regularly. The ads and even the phishing expeditions are a royal annoyance, but you’re safe if you’re smart.

Tracking cookies get dangerous when they converge with weak passwords. This affects business and personal internet use, and here’s how cybercriminals get you.

Once cyberstalkers know where you go, they can make some guesses about your username, which usually has an element of your name or your entire email address, and they have software to try to crack passwords. If you have a weak password – such as the first initial, last name, and 123 that a friend who got hacked used – they’ll crack it. And if you use it at multiple sites, they’ll get into every one of them. And they never had to get into your computer to get into your accounts. The clues were out there to find your bank account or credit card number to clean you out or go on a shopping spree.

The problem, of course, is with a weak password and the lack of a password manager. As an aside, if you are hacked, we use your cookies to see where you’ve been and see if something there has led to someone getting your info and maybe your money.

Finding a strong, unique password or several really strong passwords that you can easily remember is not that hard. What’s an odd association with your name or something you see when you look out the window? What’s a number that’s not tied to your birthday, phone number, or something else that could be part of your public record? What’s a random word that relates to nothing? Where can you substitute a number or special character for a letter? Following that process, any combination of 12 to 16 characters should give you a strong password.

If you combine a strong password with a password manager, you can let the password manager generate random strings of letters, numbers, and characters that become strong passwords. And if your password manager and the websites you visit have facial recognition capability, it’s simpler, stronger, and even faster.

We can help you configure a password manager for individuals or groups, and we can help with improving your password security. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your needs and develop a plan.

A Guy Gets in a Tesla in Ukraine…

A Tesla driver in Ukraine got a “free ride” on Spotify, courtesy of a US Tesla owner whose car was totaled. It was one of the many ways electronic hitchhikers can access your data on so many different kinds of things. This is just the latest story of how our data lives on – and on – when we no longer own (or lease) a car with an infotainment system or Bluetooth, a copier, or a mobile device.

How did a Tesla owner in Ukraine happen to have access to a Spotify account? It happened like this.

An executive news editor at a major TV outlet recently tweeted (or X’d) that a Tesla he had totaled last year was now in southern Ukraine, and the new owner was listening to Drake on his Spotify account. Reporters tracked down what happened to their editor’s car. An online auction site scooped up the Tesla after it was totaled and listed for sale. Someone in Ukraine appears to have won the bid, and the car was shipped from New Jersey to Europe, where its new owner was able to access the editor’s personal Spotify playlists.

The editor contacted Tesla to see how he could log out of his former car, and the company instructed him to disconnect the vehicle from his account. But several steps, such as entering new owner information, were impossible. Experts in data security told reporters that simply disconnecting an account from the car does not prevent your data from being extracted. They said Tesla should have had a feature to “wipe all my info from this car” long ago.

This is far from a Tesla-specific issue. Cars, laptops, smartphones, TVs, and even refrigerators are now internet-connected devices that can store personal data.

In the office, networked copiers are used as printers and scanners and save everything that passes through them. The equipment manufacturers build this in because leases can be based on the number of pages a unit scans, copies or prints. Today’s units also have long service lives after a lease expires. So when you turn back a copier to lease a newer model, the copier company puts it back on the market. Unless you’ve taken specific steps to wipe the data clean, every document run through the copier goes on the market, too.

We must confess we don’t have access to the menus for the service functions that can wipe the data from a unit, and we haven’t found a way into them – yet. So your best resort is to contact your copier company and make sure all your personal data is wiped clean before the machine leaves your premises.

It may take a little searching through the menus for other devices, but you should be able to find the magic button that returns each of them to factory default settings. iPhones are top of mind for this now because the iPhone 15 is hitting the market later this month, and that – along with new phones from other manufacturers – triggers a spree of trade-ins to bring down the price of a new phone. You might also plan to get new computers for your office or your children for the new school year. The same principle applies. Wipe every device clean of all your data.

Along the same lines, wipe them clean if you’re renting a car and using your data on the Bluetooth and infotainment system, including iOS and Android systems that run through the radio. And make sure you log out of your TV subscriptions before checking out of your hotel room or rental home.

If you’re not sure how to wipe a device clean or log out of a subscription, call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to walk you through the process. We recommend you do this well before you turn in your car or room key so we’re available to help. In the age of internet-connected vehicles and devices, you never know who’s going to get one of them next.

The IT Guy Stumbles, Too

Those of us in the IT field are subject to the same pressures as everyone else, and we can stumble just as easily as anyone when we’re rushing to leave on vacation – or a business trip. Here’s the story of how I almost blew it – and I’m stickin’ to it. Let it serve as a lesson for you.

It was the Friday before we were leaving for our latest (hopefully not last) family vacation (Charlie will be college-age next summer), and I was in a rush to close all our business and personal affairs before leaving the next morning. I got a call on our home landline purporting to be the bank for our main credit card wanting to question charges from Walmart and Malaysian Airlines. With one foot out the door, I wasn’t thinking straight. They said I could have a new card in three or four days, but I said I needed one tomorrow morning because we were leaving for vacation. When the caller said they’d need a supervisor to call me back, I started to think maybe the call wasn’t legit.

This was a prime example of how we get caught. Credit card fraud is a major problem that’s hit just about everyone in the world. A call like that is no surprise. When I took a deep breath, I hung up the phone, went online to my bank, and looked at my account. There were no pending charges from either place. Had I stayed on the phone call, well, I don’t want to think about it.

One problem with phone calls today is that even if you see a symbol, such as a checkmark (√) or a V in parentheses (V), it may be a spoof. It’s easy to spoof any phone number, so don’t believe it is legitimate because you see a symbol. We don’t pay attention to possible pitfalls when we’re rushing to get things done before a vacation or a business trip. We need to take a deep breath and step back before we act. Otherwise, we could come back to empty bank accounts.

One of our clients almost made a similar mistake when they got a text message about an ambulance bill. The client had gone to an urgent care, and doctors there determined they should be taken by ambulance to the emergency room. The text said their insurance carrier had declined the claim, and there was a link they could use to pay the bill. After staring at the text – after almost clicking the link to see what was going on, they looked on their carrier’s website and found no mention of the ambulance ride. The really scary part is how someone knew our client had an ambulance ride from a specific company on a particular date.

If you do make a mistake, you should call your credit company’s or bank’s fraud line and report it immediately. If you can’t get through, go online through your browser and file a report. You can usually block action on your credit card with the click of a button.

If you fear a breach, you can call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for help. We can start to put the pieces of your puzzle together to see where your system may have been breached through your computer or mobile device and help you rebuild your security system.

Maui: A Warning About Warnings

The tragic fires that hit Maui hit us particularly hard. We have visited the places that were destroyed and mingled with the people there, and we grieve with those who lost loved ones and their homes and businesses. At the same time, Maui exposed holes in how we put together warning systems. The latest and greatest technology can’t do it all.

While everyone is enamored with text messages, it has long been our demand that if you have an emergency, call our office – 973-433-6676. Never send a text; you never know when we’ll be able to see it. If I can’t answer the phone, we have a trained answering service to get your information and determine if I need to be interrupted from whatever I’m doing to call you back. Oh, you should know that our office number is a landline. We find it most reliable, as you’ll see.

In Maui, according to reports I read, they sent text messages, made cell phone calls, sent emails, and made announcements on radio and TV. They never used a proven, low-tech means of warning: sirens. They will work as long as there is power at the sirens’ location. When you send a text or email – or make a cellphone call or broadcast on radio and TV – you never know that the recipients have power and appropriate signal transmission conditions. We just can’t rely on technology all the time.

As we look to learn how to respond better to emergencies, we have to ask the question: Do you have a disaster plan in place? Whatever you believe, we are becoming more prone to weather-related disasters anytime during the year. If a disaster hits anywhere in the country, it could affect you if you have a national base of customers/clients and/or suppliers. You may have employees anywhere in the country and local people who may or may not be able to work at home when a disaster strikes. How will you communicate with all of them?

Here are some basics:

  • Have multiple ways to contact everyone who needs to be notified.
  • Have multiple ways for people to contact you – or a designated person(s) who will coordinate disaster response activities.
  • Have “captains” who can notify groups of customers, suppliers, employees, etc., of the disaster and what each of them needs to do. The “captains” can also be the ones people reach out to for more information.
  • Use blast emails, text messages and even WhatsApp or chat groups to supplement the individual contacts. Don’t overlook any way of reaching people.

In the aftermath of a disaster, you should have a recovery plan in place to replace equipment and devices and restore your data management system.

We can help you set up and update/upgrade the systems you need to communicate disaster information and recover from a disaster. Most of our clients already have some type of plan in place, but as your business changes, your plan should keep pace with those changes. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to review your disaster management plans and make the necessary changes.

Delete, Delete, Delete

Too many people still hit the “unsubscribe” link instead of the “delete” key when dealing with spam emails and texts. Then they wonder why they get even more spam. It’s simple: You’ve identified yourself as a live person, and you’ll click on something sooner or later.

The problem came to the forefront when one of our clients got hacked. In conversation, they complained about getting too much junk email – no matter how often they hit that “unsubscribe” link. They were beside themselves, but that didn’t need to be the case. And with the Presidential and Congressional election campaigns expected to be full blast for the next 15 months, you can expect to be inundated with unwanted emails.

Here are our junkyard tips for handling junk email and texts.

First and foremost, remember that “unsubscribe” and “delete” are not the same thing. When you hit the unsubscribe link, you are sending a response to an entity you never agreed to have a relationship with. You’ve let them know they hit a live, active email address they and their partners can exploit. It’s like letting a stranger into your house, and they immediately invite their buddies in to raid your refrigerator and see what else is around.

If you hit the delete key, you’ll erase that email – or text – from your device simply and immediately. That’s it. No interaction. They may figure it’s a valid email address or mobile phone number, but they can’t tell for sure it’s active, and they may decide to take yours off their list.

Our rule on unsubscribing is: Only unsubscribe from a list you subscribed to. We all get on various mailing lists for stores or as part of getting a special discount. You should not have any problem disengaging.

The same rules apply to text messages. Delete them. You can report them as junk if you like, but it’s enough to delete them. Be wary of any email or text that starts with “Hi, how are you?” Most are an attempt to hack your system. Just delete them.

With email or text, don’t click on links from strangers. Be careful about the sender. Hackers are getting much better at spoofing corporate logos and adding one character somewhere to a URL to fool you. It’s always safer to open a browser independently on your device and go to a website from there.

In addition to the political fundraising getting into full swing, the holiday shopping season is about to begin. You’ll get even more junk and see even more attempts to hack your system with offers “you can’t refuse.” Don’t just refuse them; delete them. For some hackers, this is the ideal time to plant malware or ransomware by catching you with your guard down.

If you think that you have taken in malware or ransomware by mistake, shut off your device and call us at 973-433-6646. We’ll help you take the steps to remove any malicious software on your device and get you safely back online.