Not too long ago, the New York Times reported that a collection of Russian thieves collected a stash of Internet account credentials totaling 1.2 billion user names and password combinations, and 500 million email addresses taken from 420,000 websites. The attack vector employed by the cybercriminals was believed to be spam – the use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.
Estimates vary, but a rough calculation of 7 trillion spam attacks occur annually, and the costs associated with lower worker productivity and fraud are borne mostly by the general public, not to mention the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who must increase the bandwidth of their messaging systems to accommodate the increased messages transmitted associated with this deluge of phishing activity.
Unless you are a Luddite, the odds that your online credentials have been compromised are extremely high, even if you typically take defensive measures to keep from becoming a victim of Russian cyber criminals.
That said, have you ever wondered just how your credentials got lifted or how your computer became infected with malware, despite taking every possible precaution to prevent this from happening?
One reason we all have likely fallen prey to the cyber thieves is because we surf the web as system administrators; that is, when we initially set up our login information on our own personal devices, we deliberately established our user accounts as ‘administrators’ instead of ‘standard’ users. The difference between the two is that standard users are not permitted to perform tasks such as installing software, altering system configurations and changing file permissions of programs and log files. Administrators, on the other hand, have the power to do anything they want, such as installing new programs, making files ‘hidden’ from the operating system and most precariously, enabling the operating system itself to fall prey to a particular kind of malware known as rootkits. Rootkits embed themselves so deeply into your system that many anti-virus checkers are unable to even detect them, effectively hijacking your system without your ever knowing that it succumbed to an attack.
By surfing the internet as administrator-level users, we are granting every program that we run – from videos on YouTube to mail attachments to nefarious programs embedded into seemingly legitimate web addresses – to run programs on the computer with the highest privilege level available. Hackers take advantage of the fact that most surf the web as administrators from private computers often used to conduct financial transactions from various accounts (credit card, debit, equity, and loan accounts to name a few) and plant malware at every location we are likely to visit.
If you are someone who regularly surfs the Internet with an administrator account, your system has likely already been compromised, and the only sure-fire way to get rid of the active (and dormant) malware sitting inside your machine is to format your drive(s) and reinstall everything from scratch. Using system backups are generally not a good idea since they themselves may contain malware that has been previously backed up.
So, after taking measures to ensure you start with a ‘clean’ system, the safest way to prevent more than 90% of the identity theft that occurs annually is to immediately perform 4 simple steps:
1) Set up an ‘administrator’ account using some innocuous login ID composed of random numbers and letters (r7DHm3oK6, for example) and an associated password with a similar random character composition between, say 8 – 12 characters. Use that administrator account to ONLY install new programs and configure system devices such as printers and wireless connections to trusted routers & switches.
2) Set up another account for everyday use using the same credentialing methodology, making sure that it is set up as a ‘standard user’ to ensure that malware access attempts are thwarted without the necessary privileges.
3) Change your password on any account that matters to you, employing the same technique of establishing a password that cannot be guessed easily using brute-force methods.
4) Install a full suite of anti-virus software with Internet scanning that you update each day to ensure your system is protected at maximum levels.
Having done each of the steps outlined above, you can rest easy that your banking sessions stay safe; after all, even if the bad guys have your old password, it does them no good since you changed it to a much stronger – and newer – authentication method. Changing your logon ID is one more step that can be added to the protective measures but, whatever you do, don’t surf as administrators.
James Gabberty is a professor of information systems at Pace University in New York City. An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University Polytechnic Institute, he has served as an expert witness in telecommunication and information security at the federal and state levels and holds numerous certifications from SANS & ISACA.