EAGLE COUNTY — Stacey Jones didn’t think of her retail and landscaping business as a target for hackers — until she got the ransom message.
In October, the computers at her Edwards-based business, Colorado Alpines and Wildflower Farm, were hacked. Jones was locked out of all of the data on her computers, and the attackers demanded a ransom of the Bit Coin equivalent $2,500 in order for an encryption code that would allegedly unlock the files.
Jones tried to contact the attackers, but with no success. After learning there had been a rash of similar computer attacks across the country and that paying the ransom often wasn’t effective, Jones and her staff set about working to recollect their information. They’re still in the process, she said.
“All our digital documentation for field services — pictures, estimates and labor/material summaries — from the entire summer — are encrypted forever,” said Jones. “The good news is we can recreate the labor and material based on our daily handwritten logs. But this will take a lot of extra labor, money and time. It sucks to lose every digital file that is important to you, especially personal pictures of precious moments.”
Unfortunately, such attacks — and that includes hacking, credit identity theft and more — are extremely common, experts say.
“We get a lot of computers infected with ransom-ware,” said Kevin Allen, of High Country Computer Services. “You turn on your computer and you get a blank screen that demands money to get back control. Your computer is being held ransom until you submit the money, and usually after you submit the money they don’t release the files. It often happens from people opening email attachments or clicking bad links.”
The risks are just as high for credit card fraud and identity theft. Colorado consistently ranks in the top-15 states for identity theft and fraud, with several Colorado cities ranking in the top-10 cities in the nation, according to the Identity Theft Advocacy Network of Colorado.
We chatted with a few tech experts on how to avoid becoming a victim and keep your data, accounts and identity safe.
Protecting your finances
Credit card fraud was in the spotlight late last year when Target, Neiman Marcus and Michael’s announced that many customers’ credit card information had been compromised. According to tech guru Tammara Combs of Can Do Studios, a big data and mobile technology company, the security breaches happened on multiple levels and was the result of sophisticated and coordinated attacks.
However, she points out that consumers can do something about it.
“The message we’re trying to get out is that consumers are not helpless,” Combs said. “We have a right to ask credit cards and companies to expose fraud and help us.”
She recommends starting by signing up for free credit monitoring, a service that watches your spending and notifies you if any charges appear above a certain amount. Anyone can sign up for the service by searching “free credit monitoring” online.
The good news is that with the rise in credit fraud and identity theft, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security are looking for solutions.
“Lawmakers are now getting involved. The nice thing is now (with such publicized incidents), we have more government agencies looking into this,” Combs said.
Protecting your computer
When it comes to computer data, Jones found out the hard way that you should always keep a backup drive and that any individual or small business can fall victim.
Allen said he often sees compromised computers that either have no antivirus protection or inadequate protection.
“If your software is free or heavily discounted, well, it’s usually free for a reason or they offer limited protection. You can get a great constant monitor for $30 to $40,” he said.
Other common mistakes include disabling your firewall, working with outdated operating systems or thinking that you don’t need antivirus software at all.
“A lot of people don’t keep their operating systems up to date. We see people using Windows 95 or 98, which means there are no longer security updates for their systems,” Allen said. “Also, Apple users think they won’t get infected, which is not true. You still need antivirus software.”
Of course, don’t open strange files or click on unknown links. Another precaution is to set up a separate administrative account on your computer.
Allen said that he uses a separate account with a password for doing things like setting up and removing software, adding printers and turning the firewall on and off. He has a separate account for Web browsing or emails.
“It’s a bit of an inconvenience, but it prevents you from accidentally going to a site and installing some software,” he said.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.