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What is Malware?

What exactly is malware, and how can you safeguard against it?

You’ve heard the term. You’ve seen the warnings. You may have even been unlucky enough to experience an attack. But what exactly is malware, and what can you do to safeguard against it?

Malware: A Catch-All Term

Malware is an umbrella term for any type of malicious software. This can include anything from computer viruses, worms and Trojan horses (a malicious piece of software disguised as a legitimate program) to ransomware, spyware, adware or scareware.

Typically, anything that secretly works against the interests of a computer user can be classified as malware. Malware can infect almost any type of computer or digital device. Some but not all machines that are vulnerable to malware include: Windows computers, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Android devices and network servers. Viruses and worms are the most common types of malware, and both are spread by becoming embedded in executable software.

Why it Matters  

Malware is used by hackers to gain access and pilfer the personal, financial, business or governmental data of unsuspecting individuals or organizations. Once this information is acquired, cybercriminals frequently seek to exhort money from their victims – either directly through ransoms (where the criminal blocks access to files or programs until the victim pays them money) or by engaging in identity theft.

Recent studies indicate that cybercrime is on the rise. A 2019 report revealed a 67 percent increase in security breaches over the past five years.[i] The cost of these attacks is truly staggering. According to the White House, “malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016.”[ii] The average cost of a data breach is $3.9 million according to IBM.[iii] While it may be tempting to think that only large multinationals are the targets of these attacks, 43 percent of breach victims were small or medium-sized businesses.[iv]

What Can be Done?

As with other industries, identity theft, fraud and other crimes are increasing throughout the insurance and financial services sectors. Still, there are numerous actions you can take to better safeguard your data.

A great first step is to purchase high-quality anti-virus software and install it across your devices. It is essential to purchase one from a well-known and trusted provider, and to have it consistently run scans on any machine that may be vulnerable.

You should diligently update both your operating systems (Mac/IOS, Windows, Android, etc.) and internet browsers (Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Microsoft Edge). Not only do these updates patch security holes, but they also better protect your data and offer enhanced features that can make your work life easier and more enjoyable.  

When safeguarding your devices through the previous steps, it is always a good idea to back up your data and store it on an external hard drive where it will be retrievable in the future. By taking this precaution, you will ensure that you do not lose access to your most valuable data even if you are unlucky enough to experience a malware attack and have to consult a professional to repair your device.

Avoiding Phishing Scams and Ensuring Safe Title Transactions

One of the most common threats that occur during real estate transactions is a phishing scam, where criminals seek to gain access to nonpublic personal information (NPI), place malicious code on your device or convince you to change wiring instructions. To protect yourself from these scams, agents should be mindful of the following warning signs within a suspicious email:

  • Poor spelling, grammar and generic greetings
  • Requests for personal information
  • An unusual sense of urgency
  • Instructions to change wiring information
  • Questionable-looking attachments or links that encourage a click.

Additionally, agents can reduce risk by transmitting data through encryption, using two-factor email authentications, maintaining a contact log for all transaction participants, eliminating the need for urgency and performing a risk assessment to identify security gaps.

Commit to Safety

Considering the fiduciary responsibilities that title agents possess, data security is of the utmost importance. Of course, no system is foolproof, but by knowing the risks and taking necessary precautions, agents can make significant progress toward protecting the integrity of their clients’ transactions.


[i] https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/security/cost-cybercrime-study

[ii] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/The-Cost-of-Malicious-Cyber-Activity-to-the-U.S.-Economy.pdf

[iii] https://www.cyber-observer.com/cyber-news-29-statistics-for-2020-cyber-observer/

[iv] Ibid

white background, with girl wearing glasses, wearing white t-shirt typing on a white keyboard and white mouse on the side; her expression is shock.

You’ve Been Hacked. Now What?

While getting hacked can be scary, there are steps you can take to reclaim control.

In life, there is no such thing as a sure thing, and technology is no exception. Devices fail. Software can have flaws. Algorithms can be buggy. Additionally, there can be lapses in a security system for a computer or Wi-Fi network. The truth is that, regardless of how diligent you have been with your digital security, a day may come where you realize that a worst-case scenario has come to fruition. You have been hacked, and your files, accounts and other important data are now exposed and vulnerable. In this moment, questions will likely begin to race through your mind. How are you going to respond? What are you going to do first?

Don’t Panic

The first thing to do is to not panic. It’s critical to remain calm so you can act quickly and decisively. If your hack has occurred on your work computer or device, do not attempt to fix the problem. Notify your IT support specialist and rely on their professional expertise. If the hack has transpired on your personal device or home network, however, you will need to take direct action to protect yourself and limit the damage.

Change Your Passwords

The easiest step you can take is to change all your passwords. From bank and utility accounts to social media profiles and email platforms, the average person can have dozens of different passwords that they use to operate online. Due to this sheer volume, it can be a daunting prospect to comprehensively rework all your digital passwords. To make it easier, work strategically, focusing on the most important accounts first. You can also employ a password manager to make the process easier and ensure that you can remember the new passwords you are generating.

Be Vigilant

Even after you change your passwords, stay vigilant regarding your financial accounts and continuously monitor for any unauthorized activity. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, contact your bank or financial institution and report suspicious transactions. You can also consider putting a credit freeze on your credit files, which can mitigate lasting harm to your financial reputation. Lastly, when contacting your bank, use a device you know you can trust.

Scour and Start Over

Once you have secured your online accounts and taken action to protect your financial health and reputation, you should move toward repairing your compromised machine. Use your antivirus software and run a comprehensive scan of your device. If you don’t have antivirus software already installed, you can and should download a strong program. There are a glut of affordable programs that you can download directly onto your computer, tablet or mobile phone. Just be sure to conduct appropriate due diligence to ensure you are selecting a robust program. Now is not the time to skimp on security!

For additional peace of mind, you may want to consider reinstalling your device’s operating system in its entirety. Keep in mind to not reinstall from backups, which should only be employed to recover personal files. For some, this step may feel challenging and beyond the scope of their knowledge and capabilities. If that is the case, consult with a professional. Working with a digital security or computer repair expert will give you additional confidence that your reinstallation is being carried out correctly.

You’re Not Powerless

There is no way to guarantee total security when operating online. For evidence of this, you only have to look at the news. Hardly a week goes by without a story reporting on a large company experiencing a major data breach. Therefore, despite an individual’s best efforts, hacks may still happen. The important thing is how you choose to respond. By staying calm, securing your digital accounts, cleaning your machine or reinstalling the operating system completely, you will empower yourself to overcome a security breach and move forward as an even savvier internet user.

Graphic of a blue outlined computer monitor with a vertical yellow file folder coming out of it.

The Basics of Digital Organization

Take charge of your devices and accounts to get your digital house in order.

We have all been there at some point: Your desktop has become a cluttered mess. Your computer is overrun with outdated or unnecessary software. Even your update notifications have become unmanageable.

If you can relate to this, it is probably time to better organize your digital presence. By taking advantage of the following steps, you will instill your digital life with a greater sense of control and order, lowering your anxiety and maximizing your productivity as a result.

The Power of Folders

The first thing to do is to tackle your cluttered desktop. Start by setting a hard limit on top-level folders and then stick to that limit for each tier of your digital folder tree. Pick a number large enough to accurately encompass the various ways in which you use your device but small enough to instill your machine with a sense of order. More than likely, this number will need to be larger than five, but you should strive to keep your final number under ten. Like any goal, the numerical limit you select should force discipline but ultimately remain feasible.

For this blog, we will use the number seven, splitting the difference. Begin by establishing your top-level system of seven folders on your desktop. Think about how you can segment the different materials on your computer in the most generalized way possible. Perhaps consider a file for photos, a file for client documents, a file for any personal items and so on. After that, navigate inside each folder and once again create no more than seven sub-folders to further organize all files that you have lumped together into your top-level folders. Repeat this step for as many levels as you need.

Throw Out and Back-Up

Perhaps the most satisfying step in any organizing project is throwing out items you no longer need. First off, empty your recycling bin. Then ask some hard questions about each file you have. Is this something you need on your hard drive? Are you holding onto it for any legitimate purpose – whether it is professional, personal or even sentimental? The trick is to balance scrutiny and regret. Throw out everything you can, but if you have doubts about an item, keep it. Just make sure it is properly filed away in your newly-established folder system.

You can also assess your software programs and internet browsers. Uninstall any programs you no longer use to free up space on your machine. Delete your browser’s cookies and temporary files. You can also deploy a disk cleaning software application, but be sure to select one with good reviews.

After you have arranged your files and deleted as much as you can, backup everything that remains on your machine. There are several approaches you can take here. You can store your data on the Cloud with end-to-end encryption. You could save it to an external hard drive. You could even burn your data to a CD. Fortunately, mobile devices already support automatic data backups, and there are numerous software options out there that are cost-effective and relatively easy to use.

Enable Alerts and Updates

To ensure that you are staying organized in your digital life, you should enable automatic software updates. The endless update notifications we receive these days can be annoying and cumbersome – but the updating process is an incredibly important step to ensuring your online security. By implementing automatic updates, you will kill two birds with one stone. You will reduce the amount of manual updating you have to do and likely cut down on the volume of notifications you receive.

Tracking activity in your important digital accounts is another key piece of digital organization. You should consider activating alerts on your banking accounts in particular. Many banks offer a wide range of alert services that can help you manage your money. From low balance and unusual purchase alerts to notifications about large ATM withdrawals, it makes a lot of sense to take advantage of these free services.

Reclaim Control

These days, we all spend a considerable portion of our time online conducting large amounts of personal and professional business. Understandably, our devices can get disorganized. But by following these steps, you can reduce clutter, streamline processes and finally reclaim a measure of control over your digital life.

Blue background. A padlock with a castle as the body and the word security in white letters beneath it.

Ensuring Your Home Stays Cyber-Secure

Your home can still be your castle – even in the digital age

Home cybersecurity used to be fairly straightforward, but these days the situation has changed. With the internet playing an increasingly dominant role in how we live and work, you should take a moment to examine whether your personal Wi-Fi network is truly secure. Here are a few easy tips and tricks for how you can best protect yourself and your home in the digital age.

Your wireless network

Consisting of a modem and a router, wireless network devices are responsible for bringing the internet into your home and directing it to all your internet-compatible devices.

You need to change the default administrative password within the router to establish control over the configuration of your home system. Be sure to use a password that is difficult to guess. Try using a random series of words that are easy for you to remember. Employ numbers if possible and capital letters for extra security. At the end of the day, you want to protect yourself by making sure that only devices you know and trust have access to your Wi-Fi network.

For extra security and peace of mind, you can even consider installing a guest network. That way, you can let visitors connect their devices but avoid opening yourself up to potential security problems.

Passwords

To have confidence in your cyber security, you will want to take a hard look at the strength of all your passwords – from your wireless network to the passwords you use for each device and application.

You should try to use a different password for each device and account. This can be a daunting prospect, as it is now common to have dozens of accounts that require a password. Use a password manager tool if you are having difficulties. There are a variety of different services out there, and you can easily compare features and prices online.

Finally, don’t forget about enabling two-step verification wherever possible. Two-step verification is where two authentication steps are performed sequentially to verify whether an attempted login is legitimate. Often, this process involves a login through an online account and then the entry of a numerical code that is either emailed or texted to the account holder.

Devices    

It’s wise to become familiar with all of the devices you foresee needing to connect to your wireless network. While in the past this largely consisted of a couple of personal computers, it now could include everything from smartphones and television sets to printers, refrigerators and cars. Educate yourself not only on each device’s make and model, but also its IP address. You’ll also want to save yourself some headaches by enabling each device to download and install automatic security updates. 

Regular Backups

Unfortunately, no matter how cautious you are, you may still have a security lapse someday. You should have a contingency plan in place and regularly archive your important files and programs.

There are many different strategies you can take to make this easier. You can store your data on the Cloud with end-to-end encryption. You could save it to an external hard drive. Or you could even go the untraditional route of burning your data to a CD. Whatever you decide, you will want to make sure that you can reliably restore your data following a security breach. The good news is that many mobile devices already support automatic data backups, and there are numerous software options out there that are cost effective and relatively easy to use.

Final Thoughts Creating a cyber-secure home network can feel like a challenge. But the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. By adhering to these steps, you will be able to create an online experience that is fun and efficient but that does not skimp on security.

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4 Tips For Spotting Email Scams

As technology advances, so does the deception

The pandemic has amplified the number of scams and email attacks on individuals, companies and organizations. People are already in vulnerable places emotionally, socially, physically and mentally; Covid has only intensified fright and flight instincts. We are constantly interrupted by additional stressors.

What might have easily caught your attention on an invoice, bill or receipt, can now slip by when the mind is overwhelmed with the stress of daily life. The way people receive goods, bills, invoices and confirmations has changed during the pandemic.

Be proactive and take one worry off the list by preparing yourself and educating your clients, friends and family about current email scams. Here are four ways to identify obvious scams when shopping for company or personal resources.

The Sender

When opening an email, especially one that is unexpected make sure to check the sender address. This can be the first and last stop when identifying a scam. Do you order from Amazon or Office Depot often for your business? Typically, large companies have a very streamlined and identifiable confirmation process. It might have a logo, a reprint of your order, package tracking information, etc.

Most companies have emails such as a “confirmation@” or “receipt@”, and then the company. If your typical confirmation is now coming from a different sender or source, this is a red flag. Most purchases are automated; therefore, an email about a package and confirmation that is not expected or sent at strange times is also a red flag.

Grammar

The schoolteachers’ philosophy holds true: If it isn’t written correctly, it’s not correct. Many scams originate from outside of the United States and come from people who have never spoken English, or who might have only slight knowledge of English grammar and mechanics. This lack of familiarity with the language or even cultural communication can be extremely evident from the outset of the email. Unusual forms of personal address or improper labels are a signal of deceit.

Legitimate order confirmation emails should be free of spelling and punctuation errors, or words swapped for one another such as “their” and “there.” If you find such an error, take it as a signal that this email is likely a scam.

Strange Link     

Many people are already well versed on email scams that direct you to a link. Most know not to click the link. Use this same strategy when reviewing your confirmation and order. You are usually able to scan over the item or photo and it should direct you back to the home site, whether you were shopping on Home Depot, Office Depot or Amazon. If it directs you to another site, and you can confirm this by hovering your mouse over the link, then it’s a scam. Contact your original purchaser immediately.

Format

Most online retailers have the shopping, shipping and receipt process dialed in. Communications are auto-formatted and the email confirmation arrives in a clear, itemized order. Often items – the exact photo of the item and its link – can be found on an email confirmation.

Order receipts or requests for further action that are formatted in a strange manner should raise your suspicion. Are they asking you for additional shipping payments? Did they add your taxes incorrectly and are trying to collect? Do not fall victim to these scams. Your receipt of purchase should be clean, neat and easy to read and reference. If something is strange, then this is an identifier of a scam. In the end, trust your instincts. If something looks off, it likely is. Don’t be afraid to back out of an email or a link that feels like it might be fake. You know when something looks and behaves unlike the norm. Trust that and help yourself and your business stay safe.

This blog contains general information only, not intended to be relied upon as, nor a substitute for, specific professional advice. We accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any purpose acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material on this blog.

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