Taking a pass(word) on cyber crime

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 8:20 PM

It's a wired, wired world, especially in Minneapolis. Here are some tips for staying safe and secure.

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Craig Sorum, special agent for the FBI's Cyber Crime Task Force in Minneapolis, is a master of silver linings. Asked about a recent survey that named Minneapolis the seventh riskiest city for cyber crime, he said that's not such a bad thing.

"That tells anyone that Minneapolis is a pretty robust cyber community," he said. "That level of sociability in the cyberworld is encouraging."

The survey by online security provider Norton and the research firm Sperling's BestPlaces took into account the number of computers and mobile devices, unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots and social networking use. The riskiest city? Washington, D.C., which makes sense given the density of potentially worthy targets.

However good it is to be well-wired, Sorum said there are risks that many may not comprehend, among them unwittingly becoming a cyber-gateway to an employer.

"Let's say you work for a certain organization and I'm a spy for another country," he said. "You could be someone I want to target because you have a lot of access to information." You don't even have to be a big shot.

"A lot of people don't think they would be the target of a national security issue, but if I was in another country and your company was doing business with me, I would like to know as much about your bottom line as possible, which gives me tremendous negotiating ability," he said. "It's not just about stealing rockets. It's about the buck."

The good thing about the Internet, he said, is that everybody is on it. "The bad thing is that everybody is on it."

These days, he added, you can be a spy and never leave home.

"In the old days, the Russians had to come to the United States, then get inside the company they wanted to target, then find where they keep the good stuff, then take all their little microfilm pictures," he said. "Now you can download a truckload of data while sitting around in your Mickey Mouse slippers in China."

Sorum said that the best thing that people can do to decrease their risk of being cyber-victimized is to stop disclosing so much about themselves on Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other discussion sites.

"People used to look for your mail stacking up outside, but now you're out there telling everyone you're not home," Sorum said.

Then there is the password issue. Despite all the advice to create passwords that aren't easily cracked, people continue to protect their accounts with the security equivalent of peanut shells.

Guessing passwords isn't that difficult, Sorum said. If you're always talking about or posting photos of your dog, a hacker will try typing in your dog's name, or variants. If their hunch pays off, they might learn that -- like million of others -- you use the same password at work, for your banking account, for your credit card payments, etc.

He advised people to be careful about what they post or download when using the free wireless at, say, a neighborhood coffee shop, "because you're broadcasting to the building next door, to the cars in the street."

Here's some other useful advice to avoid cyber crime, from staysafeonline.org, a website of the National Cyber Security Alliance.

  • Change passwords every three months.
  • The best passwords have a minimum of eight characters and are a mix of special symbols, letters and numbers.
  • Shop only on legitimate sites. Look for Web addresses that start with https, instead of http. The "s" stands for "secure."
  • Know your kids' passwords and talk to them about security issues.
  • Keep the software programs that protect against spyware or malware updated.
  • Periodically check your Internet browser settings for security and privacy to make sure they're adequate for your level and type of Internet activity.
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