It’s a dangerous digital world out there. Oh, sure, we here in New York City are subject to a bewildering array of in-person fraudsters, but don’t think you’re safe out there in Small Town USA. Even with a border wall, you’re won’t be secure. There are legions of thieves who want your money, and thanks to the internet, they can get it. Data kidnappers half a world away can lock your files and demand ransom money. Meth heads living under a cactus in Arizona only need a phone to steal your good credit and your tax refunds.
Besides just unplugging everything and reading a good book, what can you do?
Here are three ways to fight back
One. Block Them
You can fight back with some basic blocking services.
Mr. Number App for Android and iPhone This is a smartphone app that crowdsources which phone numbers are scams. You can help contribute to the database of bad numbers or not – your choice. You can also block all unidentified calls, all calls from specific area codes or countries, and you can block texts, too. Works pretty well, although they are limited by what your phone’s operating system allows.
Gmail Do you get lots of scam emails? Spam? That’s because you don’t have Gmail. Gmail has been around for decades, and it does a great job of sequestering those emails so you never even see them. It also bundles ads that aren’t scams but are annoying into their own tab. Don’t have Gmail? Let me know if you have another email you like better, and why.
Two. Basic Protection
Despite the allure of ransomware, people like you and me are still much more likely to be victims of “normal” identity theft and garden-variety hacking. You already know what to do, but just in case….
Check your credit card statements, and make sure you’ve signed up for alerts by text from your bank
Change your passwords The downside is that, after you do that, you will never again remember your password. There are some ways to mitigate this. Since most hackers don’t live near you, feel free to write your passwords on paper and keep them at your desk at home (don’t try that at work). You can also use password managers. There are some you pay for and others, like LastPass, that are free
Backup your files, don’t just sync them. You need to keep files somewhere disconnected from your network. Ransomware will infect your Google drive, your Microsoft One Drive, and your Dropbox. Syncing to the cloud will help you from garden variety data loss (like a crashed hard drive on your local system), but not from viruses and ransomware.
For that, you need recent backups of everything. And – this is important – you may need to find a backup that is of all your files BEFORE they got infected. Syncing won’t do the trick, because you’re backing up bad files and erasing the good ones. If you don’t want to do regular manual backups with version control (and who does?), you’ll have to pay for it.
Update your patches. Do system updates on all your devices. Make sure you’re running the most recent version of the system (that means switching to Windows 10 if you are a windows user). Mobile devices usually update themselves, but check and do it every so often if you need to.
Use virus protection on your laptops and pcs. McAfee, Webroot, Norton, etc. The usual.
Don’t be an idiot. This one is probably the most difficult for some among us. No, you didn’t just win a free trip. No, the person on the phone is not going to give you a car just for listening to his free advice. No, that’s not your bank on the phone calling to ask you to “verify” your name and social security number. No, don’t click on that link in the email that says “Click Here For Xtra Goood Cash reWards!”
…and if you do get ransomware? Here’s what to do.
Three. String them Along
This is more of a hobby than actual advice. Once upon a time, when I was very bored at work, I set up fake email accounts with names like ILikeDophinsAndRainbows@aol.com for this purpose. This fictitious rube would reply with mouth-watering phrases like “Of course I’ll help you! How much do you want?” or “I did send the money by Western Union, just like you said. Didn’t you get it? The confirmation number is 1234-ByTe-ME” Much better examples can be found at scamorama.
For dealing with robocalls and phone scammers, I highly recommend the Jolly Roger Telephone Company. They use the latest in robot voice technology to keep phone scammers on the line for as long as possible, then email you the hilarious results. For each of their “robots”, they’ve used an actor to record some canned phrases such as “ummmm?” and “Sure!” and “Sorry, can you repeat that part again?” Then, software analyzes the scammer’s speech for pauses, and inserts an appropriate inane comment (my favorite “There’s a bee on me! I’m freakin’ out!”)
Four. Don’t Panic.
Talk yourself off the ledge, and don’t forget my favorite motto: life is inherently dangerous and expensive.