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The Colonial Pipeline delivers nearly half the fuel consumed by the Northeastern United States.  On May 7th DarkSide broke into the computer system that controls the pipeline and locked it down, causing shortages throughout the east coast until Colonial paid a $4.4 million ransom to obtain a decryption key.  The May 30th attack on JBS could have a significant impact on the supply of beef, pork and chicken in the U.S. over the summer, since the company is the country’s second-largest meat producer.

The United States is the most targeted country by cybercriminals and nation states, primarily because we are a wealthy nation full of people and organizations with outdated software and less than optimal security habits.

Criminals obtain access to computers through a variety of ways and can use their access to lock your computer and charge you a ransom to unlock it, just as they did to Colonial.  They also gather information about you to steal your identity, monitor your password entries to gain access to your financial accounts, use your email account to reset passwords to change your profile on websites, and email your friends posing as you.

Here’s how they do it and how to prevent it, starting with the simplest methods and moving to the more sophisticated:

Phone Calls

Over the past several years, most people had their computers compromised beginning with a phone call.  The caller ID on their home or cell phone would be ‘spoofed’ indicating the call was from Microsoft, the IRS or Social Security.  The caller would then instruct the victim to log onto their computer and give the caller access to fix a problem or confirm personal information.  Once they were in, they could begin their work.

  • None of these organizations will ever call you. As a rule, you should never give information to people who contact you by phone or follow their instructions to let them onto your computer.
  • To help stop robocalls you can activate the Silence Unknown Callers feature on your iPhone or consider using Robokiller, a cell phone app, and Nomorobo for landlines.

Software and Security

It’s easy to purchase a desktop, laptop or smart phone and then rarely update the operating system or antivirus software.  Unfortunately, cybercriminals are constantly examining Windows software for vulnerabilities and exploiting them to gain access.  According to PC Magazine, Windows computers were targets of 83% of all malware attacks in the first quarter of 2020.  And while Apple products have been thought to be safer, criminals have been posing as free apps or browser extensions to get users to download malware and gain access, so it’s dangerous to become complacent.

  • If you use a Windows operating system, you should be protected with an antivirus software such as McAfee, Norton or Windows Defender (which comes free with Windows 10) and must be diligent about keeping it current to defend against new malware and viruses as they evolve. Apple users may want to consider using antivirus protection recommended by PC Magazine, especially if you are in the habit of downloading new apps and programs.
  • In either case, configure your settings so that your operating system and antivirus software are updated automatically to defend against recently discovered vulnerabilities and viruses.
  • Sometimes malware makes it through your antivirus layer of security, either because your antivirus software wasn’t updated or the software didn’t recognize it because it was so new, and you will need to protect against this as well. Malwarebytes is a free ‘search and destroy’ software that compliments your antivirus software and is available for both Microsoft and Apple products.


Emails are the common carriers of viruses and malware, so it’s important to only correspond with safe senders, cut down on the volume of emails coming into your inbox, be cautious about which emails you open, and avoid links contained in emails – even if you think they’re coming from someone you know.

  • Email addresses can be spoofed just like caller ID on phones. To be sure about the sender’s identity, hold your mouse without pressing the button (hovering) over a sender in an email to see the true sender.  If the visible address and the real address are different, it may be a scam.
  • If you receive unwanted emails from organizations you’re familiar with, and have done business with, you can unsubscribe. But don’t unsubscribe or reply to spam emails because it notifies the sender that they’ve found an active email address, and you’ll receive more.  Send them to your spam folder instead.
  • Emails pretending to be notifications of a missed package delivery, Amazon order notifications, and others can contain links or attachments that cause ransomware code or spyware to be installed on your computer. Never download attachments or click on links from an unknown source.
  • If you receive an email from someone you know that doesn’t make sense or contains an odd link or attachment don’t open it. Their email account has probably been hacked or is being spoofed by someone else.
  • When you get an email, text or pop-up notice from your bank or any other company telling you to click on their link to go to a website to update your information, etc. – don’t. Go directly to the website, so you’re certain that you’re logging into the actual website, using the steps below to be sure it’s genuine.

Safe Surfing

While it may be tempting to go to a website your friend posts on Facebook or click on a ‘you won’t believe this’ article to go to a webpage, you are taking a risk.  Many of these sites contain spyware or malware that is activated when you go onto the site.

  • Hovering works with website links as well as emails, so before clicking hover over the link to see where it will re-direct you. To preview the link on your phone press and hold the link.
  • If you see two letters before the first single slash in a website link, those letters refer to a country where the website is located. A foreign country code could indicate possible fraud.
  • To ensure you are on a secure site, look for a lock icon at the beginning of the website address. You can click on the lock to see a certificate, which verifies the authenticity of the site.
  • Once you know the site is safe, you can store the site’s web address in your browser’s bookmarks or favorites for future access.

Home Wi-Fi Networks

Your wi-fi network is another way someone can get into your computer.  We all know it’s not safe to access financial records or confidential information while using a public network in a place like Starbucks, but our home network can be accessed to see what we’re doing too.  Wireless routers come with default configurations that require making changes to keep you safe.

  • Routers generally come with a default password. Replace it with a new password that’s difficult to hack by making it at least 8 or more characters with numbers and symbols or an even longer phrase.  And be sure to store it in a safe location for future reference.
  • Change your router’s default name (called service set identifier or SSID) to something unique so that hackers will not know the manufacturer. Make it something that you will recognize, then disable your broadcast settings.  When broadcasting is turned on the name of your router can be seen by others when they’re looking for a router to access.
  • If you have kids actively using wi-fi, you may want to consider having a separate router for them to keep your financial and personal data safer from unintended access.


If all your precautions fail and you’re subject to a ransomware attack or your computer is infected with a virus, you’ll be able to avoid paying and recover more quickly if you’ve backed up your files on a regular basis.

Because some ransomware can attack backups, consider using a cloud backup that can restore to previous versions that are not encrypted.  Based on the NYTimes Wirecutter column and PC Magazine recommendations, Backblaze is a good cloud-based service for individual use.

In my next blog, I’ll share ways criminals use the information they obtain, how to avoid their scams and steps to protect your identity.