How to Protect yourself from Cyber Attacks

With all the recent cyber-attacks and ransomware attacks, we must ask ourselves “are we safe”?

No, not really.  As an insurance agent and benefit consultant, my staff and I work with clients and employees across central Texas from Austin to San Antonio to Victoria and everywhere in between.  I work daily with client and employee personal information.  I must make sure my computer, my phone, my tablet, and other devices I use are secure.  I have to ensure our clients and employee personal information is safe and secure.

There are so many ways we can expose ourselves to hackers and ransomware. Probably the two biggest ways we expose ourselves is unsolicited emails and bad web pages we encounter while browsing online.   

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Let’s talk about the first one, our email inbox.  How often do you get an email that look like it is from a legitimate business? How many times have you seen an email that told you “Your package has been delayed, click here” or “attached is your billing statement, click here”?  How about a fax that comes to your inbox, but you don’t have a fax service?  Please do not click on anything in your mailbox that you did not ask for.  Please do not click on anything in your mailbox you are not expecting. This is asking for a hacker to infect your device. 

One of my friends working in Austin for the State of Texas, uses a service to test his employees by sending them fake emails pretending to be real.  The test is similar to what the employee might get from a real hacker or malicious email.  If an employee takes the “bait” and clicks on the email it warns them “you could have been hacked”.  This is an interesting test.  Obviously, the threat here is real and dangerous. This is how these ransomware attacks spread.  Just remember, if you did not ask for someone to send you something, it does not matter who it is from.  DO NOT CLICK ON IT. Instead check with the supposed sending company, did they really send this?  Sometimes just a simple verification or reading the email address it is from, can keep you safe.  I have nearly clicked on many emails that looked legitimate. I must constantly stop and say “wait, is this real and should this company be sending me this”?

Let’s move to the next big risk to our security.  Using fake web pages. Clicking on pages while browsing the internet which look like real pages.  Hackers rely on little things like typing the wrong web address or typographical errors to redirect you to their malicious website.  When you click on the wrong link, you are redirected to a malicious fake website which can infect your device.   Hackers also rely on you picking the first page that comes up when you search for a topic of interest.  Sometimes that first page is not the page you thought it was.  SLOW DOWN and look at what comes up.  Know the company you want to search for and make sure the link is the right link for that company.

Another high-risk web activity.   Any topic large groups of individuals look for.  Examples of such websites: pornographic websites; searches for famous actors, musicians, sports figures, searches for free downloads to expensive popular programs, links to downloads of free music, programs, and popular movies.  All these sites are heavily infected with malware waiting to lure you in.    

So how do we protect ourselves?  To be safe you need to make sure you protect as many ways an intruder can access to your computer, phone, tablet and data.   Start with strong unique hard to guess passwords on every website you use and access.

Here is a list of programs and software I use to protect myself:
Password manager: 1Password
Hard drive encryption: Microsoft Bitlocker or Apple Filevault.
Individual file encryption:  Axcrypt
Malware scanner / Website protection:  Malwarebytes
and Express VPN

First, let me make this disclaimer.  “I don’t get paid or compensated in any way from recommending these programs”.  I bought and paid for each of them. I use them daily.  I love them.  Now, let’s dive into each one of these programs and what they are for.

Strong unique hard to guess passwords 

Use unique passwords for EVERY online account you visit.  I know it is easy to remember your date of birth for a password or your grandson’s initials and date of birth, or your pets name.  In the early days of the internet, I used my date of birth as my password on everything.  If you use these simple passwords over and over, a hacker probably already has your information.  Have you seen the news?  Have you heard about all the data breaches?  Take a look at the list of data breaches on Wikipedia.   This should scare everyone! When you use a password like “K?]:,4ADI64q” it is unique, hard to remember and hard to hack. Now let’s go a step further.  Change your passwords regularly.  

You ask, how can someone remember these hard crazy passwords?  Use a password manager. Personally, I use and love 1Password.   This simple program is available on all the devices we use today.  Once you buy the software, you can download it to your phone, tablet, windows, or mac computer and share the data between each device.   1Password can save each login or website you use, plus a separate unique password for that website and auto fill it when you visit that website on any of your devices!  It does not matter if you use Safari, Chrome or Firefox.  I absolutely love this program and would be lost without it.  Check it out to store and generate those crazy complex passwords that hackers can’t guess, and you can’t remember.  1Password makes it super easy!

Hard Drive Encryption

Encrypt your computer hard drive.  This protects your computer if it is ever lost or stolen.  This is a must for all laptops!  This is free software that ships with your Mac or Windows computer.  Windows computers come with ”bitlocker”.  Mac computers come with Filevault.   Turn these on.  What this software does is encrypt the hard drive on your Windows and Mac computers.  If someone steals your computer or laptop, the information on it is not useable without knowing your login credentials.  This stops access to the hard drive and everything on it.

Individual file and folder Encryption.

Want to protect yourself and your information even better?  I discovered a new software that can easily encrypt specific folders and files on your computer.  If my hard drive is encrypted, why encrypt specific files or folders?  Once you log into your computer, you have unlocked the hard drive and all the files on it.  If a hacker has access to your computer, all the files on it are at their disposal once you log in.  With a separate file encryption program like Axcrypt.  You can protect your folders with private information.  If a hacker gains access to your machine and wants to download your folder “Bank records”, if you have encrypted those files and folders, the data they steal is not useable!

Who uses cloud-based storage like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or Apple iCloud to store personal documents online for backup?  Why not encrypt those personal files so they are protected on your computer and in the cloud! Again, this is one of my new favorite programs for security.  With hard drive encryption and separate file encryption, you have secured your valuable data on two fronts. Double protection.  You are locking your computer in case it is stolen, and locking specific files and folders with individual file locks!

Malware scanner / Website protection

A good antivirus software, malware scanner and/or web protection software is the next step in protecting yourself.  I have used Malwarebytes for many years now.  It helps to prevent those accidental web page clicks to malware infected websites.  When you click on one, it stops them in their tracks.   This program also scans your computer in the background to see if malicious programs have been installed and helps you remove them.

VPN or Virtual Private Network Sofware

One last software I recommend is Express VPN. What is a VPN you ask? Think of a VPN as adding a private channel to talk to the internet. A channel where only you and whoever you’re talking to can see or hear your conversation. You want to talk to your bank and look at your transactions. Do you really want to talk to your bank while sitting in a public room where everyone around can hear you if they want? If you are at your own home or office, generally you are safe on the internet. If you are sitting at the airport in Austin Texas, or a coffee shop in San Antonio, or the public library in Victoria Texas and you want to access the internet on the public Wifi, anyone can eves drop and steal your information. A VPN solves this by creating a “Virtual Private Network” between you and the other side.

I love Express VPN but another great runner up is Mullvad VPN, you can’t go wrong with either. Again I make nothing by referring these companies. I just use and love them. The good thing too, most of these programs are very inexpensive to own and use.

By adding these simple methods of protecting yourself, you are making it harder to get hacked and if you are hacked harder to gain access to any useful information.

I hope this helps someone.  Every folder I have on my computer with confidential personal information or data for clients and employees is encrypted.  My hard drives on my laptop and work computers are encrypted.  And every website I visit now has a unique and complicated password that I change regularly.  In a future blog post I will discuss cyber security for business owners and how to insure yourself to protect your business in case you are the victim of a data breach.  I will discuss how to insure your business.  Till then.  Thank you for visiting our blog.

Written by Eddie Carter, Managing Partner
Carter's Insurance Agency

Published July 9, 2021 

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