For all of human history, there have been scum who make their living by scamming, extorting, and robbing more industrious people. The criminals who want to take your stuff can’t just show up at your office with guns and demand protection money. Not any more. But extortion hasn’t gone away. Far from it! Instead of physical intimidation, modern crime relies on controlling your information.
Take a moment to think about your vulnerabilities. What would happen if somebody hijacked your communications and started doing business in your name? What if you started receiving collections letters for debt that you had never heard of before? I bet you’d be willing to pay a lot of money to make these problems go away, and that’s just what today’s cyber criminals count on.
Not concerned? Let me tell you about my friend, “Sam,” whose business is largely online. One morning he woke up to find that cybercriminals had hacked his email, gained access to his website, and transferred ownership of the website to a new entity. Overnight, Sam’s personal business was stolen and put up for sale. Imagine his rage and fear.
Nobody could help. Sam’s very well-known web domain registration company (GoDaddy.com) refused to lift a finger for him. The auction site, and the company that ran the new domain registration (after theft and transfer) all turned a deaf ear to his pleas. They said they had no way to verify who was who and what was true, so they sat back and did nothing. The FBI wanted to help, but the criminals were all based in Russia and American police had no options. To save his business, Sam was forced to buy back his own website for many thousands of dollars — essentially paying a ransom to the Russian mafia to save his livelihood.
Like Sam, I depend on my website and network to make a living, and that’s why I worry a lot about data security. Just as the internet enables me to find deals far from home, it also allows foreign gangs to menace my businesses from beyond the reach of police. Cybercrime, in its many flavors, is a $1 trillion per year industry. As large corporations improve their security, the thieves are always looking for softer targets: small business owners like Sam, me, and maybe you too. None of us can afford to take data security lightly.
Here is how I have learned to protect myself. First, I use really good passwords, and a different one for every online account. One way to do this is with password management software like LastPass or Dashlane. These services generate a random passcode for each online account, which you store in the cloud and access with a single strong and unique master password. With no repeated passwords, no single hack can be leveraged to control all your accounts. I also always enable 2-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA means that accessing your accounts from a new device will require additional identifying information, beyond just a password. Apple and Google both have their own versions of 2FA, or you can use third party services like Duo or Authy.
Finally, since no security is ever perfect, I recommend identity theft protection services like Lifelock or IdentityForce. These services help you monitor your online/financial identity and flag suspicious activity. If somebody does gain access to your most sensitive data, these guys can help insure you against the worst outcomes.
The bastards who want to live off our hard work are never going to stop trying to rob us, so we need to stay vigilant. In the global information economy of today, data is where the money is. The right data can enable somebody to impersonate you, sell your business out from under you, or borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars in your name. The ways of doing business have changed a lot in recent years, but the existence of cybercriminal reminds us of the timeless truth: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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