Three Tips For Avoiding an Ugly Trip through Spam Nation
Anyone who follows me, subscribes to the Radical, or has emailed me for pretty much any reason in the last 10 years PROBABLY found an interesting email in their inbox this morning.
Sent from my Hotmail account, it included nothing but a link -- either to a "Make Money by Working at Home" offer, some strange site called Pidigio, or a Craigslist post.
Needless to say, it was SPAM. My email account was hacked at some point last night.
I've spent the better part of the day cleaning up the mess -- reclaiming my account, deleting hundreds of emails, explaining to people that I really DIDN'T mean to send them an email with nothing but a link to a strange looking site, and hoping that the parents, peers and other professionals I work with won't think twice about just how competent I really am.
But I"ve also spent the better part of the day reading sites about Internet security trying to figure out just where I went wrong -- and I figured I'd share three tips for dodging hackers that are recommended by experts time and again.
Here they are:
Take your passwords seriously: The first and most important line of defense against the trolls trying to SPAM all your friends are the passwords protecting your accounts -- and the chances are that YOUR passwords aren't as secure as you think they are.
That's because hackers are using digital tools to make thousands of guesses against your passwords every hour. Their programs automatically pair common words, phrases and numbers together over and over again until they find a way into your accounts.
To protect yourself, your passwords -- and yes, you should use different passwords for pretty much every site and service to minimize the damage that a hacker can do if they find the way into one of your accounts -- need to be (1). randomized so that they're harder to guess and (2). changed frequently.
Need some ideas about writing a good password? Then check out this Commoncraft tutorial.
And if REMEMBERING the random passwords that you're creating is the real problem,then look into using a password manager program like LastPass.
Find time for regular virus scans AND keep your anti-virus program up-to-date: Something that I didn't know was that the vast majority of the time, hackers get your password from viruses that inadvertently end up being installed on your computer.
Who knows where the little buggers come from -- the USB drive that you use on sixteen different computers at school, the banner advertisements on the random websites that you flitter through while checking your fantasy football stats, or the links unintentionally emailed to you in SPAM messages from guys like me -- but once they're there, they're REALLY good at helping hackers into your accounts.
Which means scanning for viruses and keeping your anti-virus software up-to-date is absolutely essential. Sure, scanning can be a pain. But picking up the pieces after a hacking disaster is WAY worse.
On a related note, IF you've been hacked, make sure you scan for viruses BEFORE resetting all of your passwords. Otherwise the virus that stole your original passwords will hand your new passwords to your hacker buddies too.
Find a good VPN and use it EVERY time you're working on a wireless hotspot: If you are anything like me, you probably spend more than your fair share of time working on public hotspots in coffee shops, libraries, airports and fast-food joints.
Here's the thing: EVERY time that you sign on to a wireless hotspot, you are opening yourself to risk. Hackers really CAN see the information transferred across those networks -- INCLUDING your passwords.
Which means that if you are going to use wireless hotspots, you've GOT to sign up for -- and sign in to -- a good VPN (Virtual Private Network) every time that you are online.
In layman's terms, a Virtual Private Network creates a warm, safe, digital tunnel between your computer and the sites that you're signing in to. VPNs are a simple way to make it harder for hackers to steal your stuff -- and they are simple to sign up for and use.
The service that I use -- and I've tried about a dozen -- is Hotspot Shield, which you can download from the CNET website here.
Now don't get me wrong: Even if you follow these three simple steps, your accounts are STILL not completely protected.
Heck, in the last week alone, I changed my Hotmail password, scanned every computer I use twice for viruses, and signed into Hotspot Shield 90 percent of the time that I logged on to public hotspots. None of that worked. I still got hacked.
But at the very least, good passwords, good virus scanning practices and logging on to good VPNs whenever working on public wifi networks will make it a HECK of a lot harder for you to lose control of your accounts -- and anything that you can do to make the work of hackers harder is a good thing.