Pelland Blog

Passwords: First Line of Defense against Identity Theft

February 14th, 2017

Passwords have come a long way since the days of Prohibition, when a knock on the door of a speakeasy required the necessary password for entry and the consumption of illegal liquor. Today, we use passwords and personal identification numbers for just about everything online, in an effort to protect the privacy of our personal information.

Identity theft has grown rampant, proliferating at a time when almost every personal or business transaction passes through one or more computer network. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s latest annual report (covering the 2015 calendar year, with the 2016 report due out in February 2017), there were 480,000 identity theft complaints filed during that time period. Of these, 45% involved tax- or wage-related fraud, 16% involved credit card fraud, 10% involved phone or utilities fraud, 6% involved bank fraud, and 4% involved loan fraud.

One recent report surmised that 15 million Americans have become the victims of identity theft in 2016. That means that 7% of all adults have been victimized in this year alone, with an approximate per-instance loss of $3,500.00. On average, these people spend an additional $500.00 and 30 hours of time trying to recover their identities and make their private information less vulnerable.

Start with Your E-Mail Passwords

My company provides e-mail hosting services through Google and Rackspace for our website hosting clients, and it is rare for a few days to pass without being contacted by a client who has purchased a new computer or mobile device but has misplaced an e-mail account password. For obvious reasons, we do not store those passwords, and we strongly advise our clients to keep records of their passwords in a secure location. Our only option is to assist with changing the lost password, which will then require that passwords be updated on any other actively used devices.

When setting up those e-mail accounts (or updating a password), clients are often annoyed that we will not agree to use a weak password like 123456, abc123, password, passw0rd, qwerty, steelers, yankees, football, baseball, camaro or firebird. (Yes, those are actual passwords that consistently show up on compiled lists of weak passwords.) In fact, Google’s Gmail will not allow an admin to use a password that is made up of fewer than 8 characters (although there are no further password security requirements beyond this minimum length.)

Some people make an attempt at generating a secure password that they can still remember. For example, they might concoct “AIwfCim2ft” from “All I want for Christmas is my 2 front teeth.” The rule of thumb is to use something that is both easy to remember and difficult to guess. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but something totally random that also uses special characters and spaces would be even better, although far less memorable.

Secure passwords will provide a layer of protection against some bad character obtaining your password and hacking into one of your accounts, but they are of far less value in protecting your identity should your account be one of thousands (or millions) compromised in a major data breach.

Hacks Happen

You do not need to be Sony Pictures getting under the skin of Kim Jong Un. Big companies are routinely targeted by hackers from around the globe, putting the security of their subscribers at risk when a breach occurs. In general, big businesses take extraordinary measures to attempt to maintain the utmost security standards, but it is an ongoing game of cat and mouse. For example, Facebook alone has paid out over $5 million to date in its not-highly-publicized Bug Bounty program, where it pays independent “white hat” hackers to identify and repair security vulnerabilities.

That is an example of what one big online business is doing; however your own personal security is to a great degree your own responsibility. You will want to check (and often disable) routinely loose security settings when you buy a new computer or mobile device or when you upgrade one of those to a new operating system. Keep in mind that settings that benefit convenience and ease of use are very often directly at odds with the safeguarding of your personal security.

There are many ways that passwords can be hacked online. The most common technique is the use of dictionary attacks, where commonly used words are highly vulnerable and easily uncovered. Another technique consists of using the brute force of computing power and sophisticated software to run through every possible combination of characters. The more bits of data involved (directly proportional to the number and random nature of characters), the longer it will take to hack a password. Complex character combinations and the use of encryption slow down, but will not prevent, the disclosure of a password to a determined intruder.

There are actually times when a company or individual needs to recover a lost password, and there are other instances where law enforcement needs to crack a password in order to uncover criminal activity. We are all familiar with the FBI vs. Apple Computer encryption debate, involving a cell phone owned one of the shooters in the December 2015 San Bernardino, California terrorist attack. Whether used for good or bad, there are dozens of free, open-source brute force hacking tools that can be easily found and downloaded online. Their existence and ease of access should provide a wake-up call to any computer or mobile device user.

Just in case you think that one of your own passwords is “secure enough”, enter it into this online tool for what will probably be a rude awakening:
https://howsecureismypassword.net/

HowSecureIsMyPassword_600x205_100
Minimum Standards

The minimum standards for password security that are generally considered acceptable today involve the use of at least 12 (preferably 16) entirely random characters (a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, spaces and special characters), never including a dictionary word or a repeated sequence, and with no password used in more than one application.

An online tool that will assist you in generating secure random passwords is the aptly-named Secure Password Generator. Using this tool, I just generated a random 16-character password that I then entered into the secure password test site (shown above.) According to that site, the password that I entered would take 41 trillion years to crack. Give it a try:
http://passwordsgenerator.net/

Storing Passwords

The best advice for keeping track of your cryptic passwords is to always maintain a written paper record in a very secure location. To simplify your life, you can also use one of several password managers that will allow you to encrypt and store all of your passwords in one secure location. You will only have to remember one password to access your files. (If you have been following along and learning from what I have written, that password will meet the standards that I have outlined above.)

The following are some of the best free password managers. They all work across multiple devices. Compare their features and choose one:

LastPassDashlaneKeePass

Bear in mind that even these password managers are vulnerable to hackers; however, in one documented security breach, only users with weak passwords were impacted. We are over a month into a New Year. Resolve to at least take a step in a positive direction when it comes to your online security.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

If a Contest on Facebook Sounds Too Good to be True …

September 2nd, 2015

You probably know how that sentence ends. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. In this case, there have been a number of hoaxes that have circulated on Facebook, and it is amazing how many thousands of people unwittingly think these “contests” are authentic before the pages get reported and eventually get taken down.

Over the weekend, one of my friends on Facebook shared a link and commented how she hoped she would be one of the lucky monthly winners of $5,000.00 in travel money being given away by Qantas Airlines. The page looked very authentic but I immediately detected a scam. The page had relatively few posts for a big corporation, all of which dealt with the contest, and I noticed that it had a total of only 14,190 “likes”. That low number of likes is a dead giveaway that you are not at a legitimate page. A quick search brought me to the real Qantas page, with 715,496 likes and, of course, no such contest.

It turns out that this is not the first time that Qantas has had to deal with the public relations nightmare that can result when people think that a business is somehow responsible for a scam in disguise. In an earlier instance this year, a fake page announced that the airline would be offering free upgrades to first class for all passengers through the end of 2015. That bogus page accumulated some 130,000 likes and over 150,000 shares in the first 24 hours of its existence. Yes, people can be very naïve.

Another friend not long ago shared a link to another Facebook page that captured his excitement. It alleged to be Chevrolet and was encouraging people to enter a contest to win a free Chevy Camaro. I noticed that all of its posts involved the fake contest, most extending the entry deadline in order to get more people to “enter”. Once again, I noticed that the page had relatively few “likes”, and I provided my friend with a link to the real Chevrolet Camaro page on Facebook, not surprisingly with 4,407,269 likes as of this writing. Until somebody reports a page that mimics the identity of a legitimate page and violates its legal trademark, scams like this will perpetuate indefinitely.

One way to quickly confirm the authenticity of a Facebook page is to look for the blue checkmark icon next to the page’s name, confirming that the page of a global brand or business, celebrity or public figure, or media outlet has been verified to be legitimate. Unfortunately, Facebook does not offer this authentication option to small businesses like yours and mine.

If you encounter one of these fake pages, you may be wondering why somebody has taken the time to create it. Typically, the pages are built by individuals who are engaged in the practice of “like farming”, hoping that their page will not be reported and taken down before they will be able to increase its value and profit from it in a black market engaged in the buying and selling of this type of content. Visitors to these pages are usually encouraged to “like” and “share” the pages, whether the incentive is a bogus contest, a chain letter, or simply a photo of a cute puppy or kitten. If a page has more “likes”, it will sell for more money to subsequent scammers who can then engage in more nefarious cons. Many of those are engaged in the collection of personal information that only begins with e-mail addresses and Facebook profiles but could very well end in full scale identity theft.

We all know people who have gotten their personal profiles compromised on Facebook. It can be a nightmare, but for a business, this type of violation can be far more damaging. As a business owner yourself, probably with a Facebook page of its own, you need to be vigilant about protecting your company’s online identity. There can be very real costs in crisis communications and the loss of consumer confidence in your brand. Back in 2012, another airline – Jetstar – suffered tremendous corporate damage when a scammer set up a bogus Facebook page and began posting highly offensive responses to customers posting questions to what they thought was its official page. Instances like this are nothing less than corporate sabotage.

Thinking hypothetically, what would be the direct – and indirect – impact of hundreds or thousands of people being led to believe that you were giving away free merchandise to anybody who showed up at your business next Saturday? It has been sometimes said that all publicity is good publicity, but it does not take much imagination to realize that this adage can be far from true.

Sadly, it is extremely easy to build an official-looking page with very little skill or talent. A con artist copies and pastes a few graphics and trademarks, registers a deceptively similar page name, then posts something that sounds so good to the unwitting that it goes viral faster than it can be taken down. If your business ever finds itself in this unenviable situation, it is imperative that you immediately report the bogus site and that no time is wasted before engaging in damage control and exposing the hoax as broadly as possible.

This post was written by Peter Pelland