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Why Average Americans Should Beware Russian Cyber Attacks

A Pennsylvania Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency office warns that Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which involved cyber attacks on its government and infrastructure, may impact others.

A shape of a skull overlayed over lines of code.
(TNS) — War and crime are still executed in public with deadly weapons, as evidenced by the horrors playing out in Ukraine.

But they are executed as well on the virtual battlefield.

Misinformation, security breaches and sabotage are all on the online plane — and that's where Jim Slick sees another piece of the war being waged.

Slick, of Slick Cyber Systems, Foster Twp., said hackers attached to the group Anonymous shut down Russian government websites and state run news out of disgust with the invasion. Anonymous is an elusive, worldwide underground internet hacking group — and as the name implies, membership is a mystery. Those involved say they don't hack for money, but for morality.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warns that while there are no credible cyber threats in America, Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which involved cyber attacks on its government and infrastructure, may impact others.

A cyber attack can take on many forms. Dennis Cheng of twobytwo Solutions in Honesdale takes account of them through work and a membership with InfraGard, a private/public partnership sponsored by the FBI designed to protect United States critical infrastructure through information sharing and education. Members study intelligence to see what sectors are being targeted so they can focus attention where it's needed.

Misinformation or bogus news spread during the last two presidential election cycles is still prevalent, and the goal is to keep America divided, Cheng said, noting Russians are masterminds of information warfare.

"Anytime we're polarized and not unified, it enriches our adversaries," he said.

Make sure your news comes from a reputable and vetted source, said Curtis Jones of InnoTek Computer Consulting Inc., Bloomsburg and Hazleton. Check your information against multiple verified sources, he suggested.

Today's organized crime

During the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline Co. last spring, which took down the largest fuel pipeline in the United States, hackers entered through a virtual private network (VPN) account, which allowed employees to remotely access the company's computer network. The hackers, attached to a cyber crime group, stole nearly 100 gigabytes of data from Colonial, which paid a $4.4 million ransom.

Another attack is called advanced persistent threat, or APT. Hackers essentially get into a system and aren't detected for years, said Cheng. Then one day there's a security breach.

There are Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks, meant to shut down a machine or network by flooding it with traffic, or sending it information that triggers a crash.

There's a "man in the middle" scheme, where a hacker jumps in on a transaction and impersonates one of the people involved. The hacker may say they were one number off on the bank account number they sent and ask for the other person to use the "corrected" account number to send money.

It happened just a few weeks ago to a company in the Hazleton area and cost them $1.7 million, said Fred Reck, CEO at InnoTek. It took less than 10 emails to direct that much money to the hacker's bank account, added colleague Amy Heintz.

The victim ended up hiring InnoTek to install safety measures so it doesn't happen again.

"(Cyber attacks) are the organized crime of the 21st century," Reck said. They're often perpetrated by people in other countries who don't have extradition, so they operate with impunity in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, he said.

Attackers could be organized crime groups or nation- or state-sponsored. North Koreans use ransomware to raise money to fund nuclear programs, for example, Cheng said.

But what happens if an adversary to the United States causes an internet blackout?

One thing to keep in mind is cyber resilience, Reck said. No matter how well people are protected, one day it could happen that the internet shuts down for days.

Think about what you or your business rely on the internet for. What is the backup plan? Reck asked. Maybe you want to keep a week's worth of cash on hand, for example.

Don't panic, Heintz said, just prepare.

Wartime tips

Cheng predicts Americans will start seeing emails for false fundraising to support the people of Ukraine. Be careful to verify the organization, he said.

There may be romance scams, too, where people plead with a prospective romantic partner to wire them money because their bank was hacked or shut down.

Be careful of what you click on. It may be a post or an email containing video of what appears to be a newsworthy event in Russia or Ukraine.

"It's catnip — you can't resist looking at it," Cheng said.

But it could be bait for a criminal to access personal information.

Other attempts to hack may look official, like a message flashed on your device that the FBI wants to scan your computer.

"The FBI will never do that," Cheng said.

Any request for money transfers or requests with urgency are almost guaranteed to be fake.

Phishing is the most common attack, said Slick, and can lead to the theft of identity, credit and bank account information, so pay attention to your emails. If you don't know who it came from, don't click on anything. If it looks legitimate, think about it: Does anything look off? Are there spelling or grammar errors?

People committing cyber attacks are getting better with their English language skills, said Reck, so even if everything looks OK, question it.

Jones said phishing attempts to cull personal information can also take place over the phone.

Verify. If it's an email from your bank, don't call the number provided in the email, call the number on official bank information such as their verified website.

Always scrutinize and be skeptical of solicitation for money or personal information, Heintz said.

Make sure the website you're using is authentic. Reck said nefarious people will buy domain names that are one character off from an authentic web address in the hopes that someone will type in an address with a typo and type their username and passcode on the bogus site. When that happens, they've given that information to a hacker, Slick said.

"I'm always leery and beyond aware of my surroundings in the digital world, so for our customer base, medical, pharma, manufacturing and government, you just have to do your absolute best to keep the digital borders tight and closed," he said.

Experts say there's always something new.

"What are the nasties trying to do today that may impact our customer base?" is a question that Slick, who has 35 years in the business, asks.

He suggested using a VPN to protect internet connections and online privacy.

Slick said to use the best antivirus and malware program to be found, and the same when buying a router.

"If you want your backdoor protected, that's the way to do it," he said, "a commercial grade firewall."

Change passwords often and use ones that are hard to crack. A home computer password should be changed every three months, banking passwords should be changed monthly. Never recycle passwords or use predictable things like family or pets names — which hackers can easily find on social media.

Be careful what you share online through social media. Details in a photograph or a post can tell a hacker a lot about you, and while nation-state hackings won't likely be looking for that, criminals will, Cheng said.

Passwords can be safely stored with an encrypted password manager, said Jones.

Update your devices and reboot your mobile phone weekly. Cheng said, "stop deferring and ignoring" because missing one of those updates can leave open the potential to be hacked.

"There's no end," he said. "The criminals are very savvy."

© 2022 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.