These days, as the threat of malicious software and sophisticated cybercriminals reaches every corner of modern life, each consumer has vulnerabilities, according to Consumer Reports. And the first step in protecting yourself is to know where you are exposed.
-- On your computer. The arsenal of scams and attacks aimed at your computer is truly breathtaking. It includes websites that push "drive-by download" malware onto unsuspecting visitors and "ransomware" that encrypts the data on your computer, then charges you to get it back. And every year, email phishing gets more sophisticated. Gone are the badly spelled blasts from Nigerian princes. Newer targeted messages appear to come from legitimate companies such as UPS, PayPal -- even the company you work for. Last year, 11.2 million people fell for such scams, up 22 percent from the year before, according to the latest survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
How it hurts you: Certain malware can disable your computer. Some attackers infect your machine without your knowledge, then integrate it into vast "botnets" of hijacked computers to launch more attacks. Aside from using security software (many free programs work just fine) and keeping your computer up to date, the best defense is to be a skeptical surfer. If a link on a Web page or in an email seems suspicious, don't click on it.
-- On social media. If you post and share information about an upcoming trip on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter, you might have just set yourself up to be burglarized while you're away. Information you share on social networks can reach tens of thousands of people you don't know. Social networks themselves are also vulnerable to hackers. Last fall, 42 million passwords were exposed when hackers hit Cupid Media dating sites.
How it hurts you: Social networks are a rich repository of personal data that can help criminals figure out where you live and who your friends are, and can disclose much of the data required to fill in those password-reset forms. (Does your mother go by her maiden name in your list of friends?) Limit the amount of personal info you share on social networks and check your privacy settings -- restrict everything to just friends.
-- On your smartphone. Android phones are the target of choice for hackers. According to security firm F-Secure, 97 percent of new threats were aimed at Android phones, though most mobile malware exists in third-party marketplaces outside of the Google Play store. Those sites can harbor nasty code such as the Geinimi Trojan, which piggybacks on widely downloaded games and apps. Consumer Reports notes that even Apple's famously locked-down iPhone can be vulnerable. The company had to patch a serious bug in its encryption code in February.
How it hurts you: Mobile malware can take over your whole phone, steal your contact list and run up charges for premium services. Most of it can be avoided by installing phone apps only from the most reputable app stores, such as Google Play, the iTunes App Store and the Windows Store.
-- In the cloud. Widely used cloud services such as Dropbox and Evernote are great for storing files and organizing tasks, but they have a spotty security record. Dropbox has had several breaches over the past few years, and in 2013, a hack of Evernote exposed the user names and email addresses of about 50 million users.
How it hurts you. Information stored in the cloud is only as secure and accessible as the cloud provider makes it. If you store private information on a cloud-based service, encrypt it with a free encryption program such as TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org) before you upload it. If a breach occurs, hackers won't be able to easily read your data.
Editors, Consumer ReportsCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun