Though the general public may be worried about Mayan predictions and the end of days in 2012, the real threats to fear next year aren’t those predicted in books and movies. It’s online attacks you should be worried about. From your smartphone to your Facebook profile, cybercriminals have one New Year’s resolution: to gain access to your information. And in the next year, they’ll be using sophisticated techniques and targeting new technologies more than ever before. Read on to find out what our experts have predicted the bad guys will be up to in 2012 and what you can do to protect yourself.
Just like regular criminals, cybercriminals are constantly coming up with new ways to access your computer using worms, viruses, spyware, scareware, ransomware, and other types of malware. Hackers have evolved from classic techniques like phishing (using spam links) to stealth rootkits (software that can steal passwords) to SEO poisoning (manipulating search-engine rankings to get users to click on an infected web page). All these techniques allow cybercriminals to steal your information for profit, identity theft, or financial fraud. And in 2012, they will be using new forms and blending different types of malware to create multi-level attacks.
Stay Safe: Set your operating system’s Internet security settings to medium or high, and always deploy the latest security patches from your security suite. Create strong passwords for all accounts, only connect to secure networks, and beware of popups or links encouraging you to download a program (to see a video, for instance).
As smartphones proliferate and mobile apps are now used by millions, hackers are eager to get their hands on the data (including communications, photos, passwords, or financial information) stored and exchanged daily. Whether by creating malicious apps that secretly steal information or deploying other malware, cybercriminals will be actively targeting your smartphones (both Androids and iPhones). This is a legitimate threat, considering that a hacker can infiltrate your phone, steal data, upload a Trojan horse, and set up the phone to secretly record you in less than three seconds. Experts predict the types of malware for mobile devices to double in the next year.
Stay Safe: Use a pincode to lock your phone when you’re not using it. Adjust your settings to make sure your phone is only accessing Wi-Fi networks you trust. Be very careful when buying and downloading apps — though reputable vendors Apple and Android will likely institute stricter screening processes, it is still up to you to buy carefully. Always read any app agreements or requests to access information. If you’re an Android user who wants to root your phone (modifying it to allow for actions that are usually restricted), know that the more access you have, the more access hackers can have, so avoid apps that request root access. And always monitor your phone bill for suspicious charges or activity.
A hacker’s most powerful tool is you. Most schemes use social engineering to manipulate a user into downloading or clicking on a link to install malware. But as Internet users become more savvy, and therefore less likely to open an attachment from a “Nigerian prince,” hackers will come up with more ways to trick you. Especially now that certain marketing companies track your online behaviors (and sell to undisclosed third-parties), your online behavior can — and will — be used against you. For example, a hacker will know you won’t click on a scam link for snow tires because you live in Los Angeles. Instead, they might send you an infected attachment pretending to be from your boss.
Stay Safe: Think twice before clicking on any attachments or links. When visiting any website, always type it directly into your browser (don’t click a link or copy/paste code that may be malicious) — and don’t click on popups or suspicious ads that encourage you to.
Botnets, the large networks comprised of zombie computers mobilized to commit cybercrime, will continue to increase in 2012. Though botnets have garnered the attention of law enforcement, which has taken down a few of these malicious networks, botnets are too lucrative for the criminals to give up. Instead, the masterminds behind these networks will be working overtime on more sophisticated and blended forms of malware to infect your computer and turn it into a botnet drone without your knowledge.
Stay Safe: At a minimum, make sure you have a two-way firewall and anti-virus software (and update your operating system)\. Also make sure your plug-ins are up-to-date (these are programs like Quicktime or Adobe Flash Player), as these software components can also be exploited by hackers.
As social media continues to dominate the online landscape, hackers will continue to infiltrate social networks. The recent Facebook spam attack is evidence that this problem is not new — and not going away. Because sites like Facebook and Twitter are social platforms, hackers rely on social engineering to trick users through tools like socialbots, which mimic human interactions (by posting status updates and requesting friends), for example. These malicious programs are used to steal information, communicate with and spread each other, and even spread propaganda to damage reputations (a legitimate concern with next year’s presidential election).
Stay Safe: Only accept friend requests or follow people you know. Monitor your own profile and your friends’ for any suspicious activity — out-of-character posts or unusual links can indicate someone’s been hacked. Don’t post personal or financial information online, and always make sure you’re accessing your social media sites over a secure network (the URL will start with https://).