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Lose your smart phone and lose your life goes the saying. And an awful lot of phones are lost or stolen each year. However, if you’re a bit canny about your phone security you won’t lose all your personal data. Check out the following tips to stay safe.

Between March 2013 and February 2014 over 180,000 computing and communication devices (think smartphones, tablets and laptops) were reported stolen to UK police, according to freedom of information request obtained by ViaSat a communications company.
A short while later Protect Your Bubble, an insurance firm, unveiled research that revealed the average mobile phone survives just 15 months before being broken, lost or stolen. And last year, it was estimated that one in four breaches (25.3 per cent) in the US financial services sector over recent years were due to lost or stolen devices.
We all lose stuff; it’s inevitable whether its keys, wallets and purses and sometimes even pets. Putting things right can be a bit of a chore such as getting new keys cut, calling the bank if cards have disappeared or tracking down the wandering cat or dog.
The only problem when we lose a phone is that we lose the keys to our digital vault and access to everything we store which is typically photos, contacts, passwords and quite often sensitive card information.
With this in mind here are some top tips to keep your phone and data safe and protected. These tips are largely for Android devices because they are the most popular type of smart device. That said many of them are also relevant to other proprietary operating systems such as Apple’s iOS and Windows Phone.

Lock your phone

This is an obvious one and you may already have done it. But if you haven’t, it’s time to nail down your security. Depending on which device you are using you can either set a PIN code or passcode or make use of Android’s Smart Lock feature which lets you automatically unlock your phone. It lets you unlock your handset with your face and keep your phone unlocked whenever you’re at home, or whenever your device is on you. If you’re using a password to lock your phone, please don’t use ‘password’ or ‘1234567’ they are simply too easy to guess. Create a password that is memorable but tough for anyone else to guess.

Lock your apps

There’s a great feature in Android that allows you to lock your apps when you use an App Lock. It’s really useful for things like email and banking apps and provides an extra layer of security so even if someone gets into your phone, they won’t be able to get at sensitive data. There are lots of App Locks available you just need to do an online search and find the right one for you. It’s interesting to note that more apps are also including Touch ID as a way to lock them down.

Consider a password manager

Passwords are an important defence to guard against someone accessing your data if you lose or have your phone stolen. Each service you use on your phone should ideally have a strong password to protect it. Of course remembering these passwords can be tough which is where password managers come in useful. With a password manager new passwords are created for you and automatically stored. A password manager will also handle logging into accounts automatically. You just need to make sure you create a strong master password for accessing the password manager. Again, there are lots of password manager choices online, and some are free.

Use antivirus

Smartphones are just as vulnerable to viruses and other malware as desktop PCs. In October 2016 an estimated 97 million mobile devices globally were infected by malware and the majority were based on Android. BullGuard Mobile Security is a good, effective antivirus tool that is cloud-based. This means that virus updates are applied automatically from the internet so you always have the latest protection. It doesn’t drain your battery, which is often a criticism of mobile antivirus and what’s more it’s free.
There is a low cost paid for version which includes tough but discreet parental controls to safeguard your children from being exposed to inappropriate content on their smartphones. It also includes antitheft controls to track, locate and wipe data off your phone if it is lost or stolen.

Don’t carry out sensitive transactions on public Wi-Fi networks

Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously vulnerable to hacking because they are public. Anyone can use them and some hackers have made a full-time job out of accessing other people’s devices via public Wi-Fi. The golden rule is to avoid doing anything sensitive over a public Wi-Fi network such as banking or shopping and we’d even go as far as saying accessing your email accounts. You can use a 4G connection to connect to the internet which is much safer.

Enable remote tracking

Occasionally a story surfaces in the press about an intrepid smartphone owner tracking their stolen device to the home of the thief. They inform the police and the ‘boys in blue,’ do their stuff, nab the miscreant and return the phone to its owner. This is thanks to remote tracking. It’s a standard feature these days and it can be a bit strange to see the location of your device pulsing on a map but it’s a great technology too. As mentioned above, this feature is available with BullGuard Mobile Security but some versions of Android also include it as standard. To use it, you need to download the Android Device Manager app then log into your Google account. You can then track your device remotely.

Avoid unofficial app stores

Stick to the official Google Play Store when downloading apps. The Google Play Store has more than a million apps on it and there are billions of downloads each month, but it’s not the only place to get apps. There are some useful apps on unofficial play stores but according to research from cybersecurity firm Opswat almost a third of Android apps on third-party app stores contain some form of malicious software. This research was carried out several years but there’s no reason to think the data is no longer valid and given that instances of mobile malware are rising year-on-year, the figure today could be higher. If you do feel compelled to search out apps on unofficial stores this is where tools like BullGuard Mobile Security can be extra useful because alongside antivirus protection apps are also scanned for malware.

Log out when you log off

Given that we always have our smartphones on or about our person very few of us log out of our accounts. For instance, when was the last time you logged out of your email account?  It’s much easier and convenient to stay logged into apps and accounts. The only problem is that if someone else gets their hands on your phone they also get access to your accounts which of course could spell trouble, especially if it’s a banking app or email account. The sensible thing is to log out of these accounts when you’ve finished using them. It gives you much more security.

Written by Steve Bell

Steve has a background in IT and business journalism and in the past has written extensively for both the UK national and trade press including The Guardian, Independent-on-Sunday, The Times, The Register, MicroScope and Computer Weekly. He’s also worked for most of the world’s largest IT companies in a copy and content producing capacity. He has a particular focus on IT security and has been involved in writing about the industry at various levels ranging from magazine launches to producing newsletters. He also runs a small copy writing business called Art of Words. When not bashing away at a keyboard he can sometimes be found in a boxing gym making futile efforts to keep fit or marveling at the works of Sufi poets such as Jalaluddin Rumi and Hafiz of Shiraz.

More articles by Steve Bell

Ransomware is very much the most virulent of modern cyber plagues. It is spreading rapidly, it draws no distinction between victims and when infected it can be deadly, often with little hope of recovery unless you take steps to protect yourself.
2016 was dubbed the ‘year of ransomware’ by security researchers. In the first three months researchers discovered 2,900 new ransomware malware modifications and an estimated $1 billion was lost as victims paid up.
It’s easy to see why it has become so popular among cyber criminals; it’s potentially very lucrative, relatively risk free and it’s easy to carry out ransomware campaigns.
Ransomware infects a computer with hard-to-break encryption locking up all the files and demands a ransom typically in the region of €500 to free the computer again. This extortionate payment is for the decryption key.
Another reason for its growing popularity is that ransomware creators are offering it ‘as-a-service.’ This means fraudsters simply hire ransomware for free and use a raft of support services to launch their campaigns. It’s appealing to the criminals because they don’t require technical skills and the coders provide wrap-around services such as botnets to launch their campaigns from.
The coders who create the ransomware typically ask for a fee of 20% of the ransom payment. So if the fraudsters generate €500,000 in ransom, the coders receive €100,000.  The actual fraudsters may be based in Eastern Europe while targeting the US or Western European countries making it extremely hard for law enforcement to catch them.
The overall annual cost of global cybercrime was estimated to be $3 trillion in 2015 and this is expected to double to $6 trillion a year by 2021. Ransomware payments are set to make up a substantially larger percentage of cybercrime costs over the next few years.
So how do you avoid this nasty malware? There are several basic steps you can take to ensure you’re not infected.

Avoid suspicious emails and links… like the plague

One of the main method crooks use to spread their ransomware is through phishing attacks, that is emails that you never expected. The emails may look legitimate but they often hide a malicious attachment or malicious link. If you open the attachment or click on the link your computer is infected without you knowing much about it.
The fraudsters are creatively clever in devising phishing campaigns and the emails will typically offer something. The message could be about an unpaid invoice, a parcel that needs collecting or an offer that is too good to be true.
Malvertising is also another method that fraudsters are increasingly using and instances of it are growing rapidly. It involves compromising an advertiser’s network by embedding malware in ads that get delivered through web sites you trust. For instance malvertising attacks have been directed at both the New York Times and BBC.
So the watch word should be ‘watch out’. Ad blockers can also be an effective way of blocking malicious ads though some websites won’t provide content unless you turn the ad blocker off.

Patch and update software and operating systems – run security software

It’s important to keep browsers, software and operating systems up to data. Hackers are adept at exploiting vulnerabilities; in fact a large part of the world of cyber-crime depends on it. This also means ensuring third-party plug-ins like Java and Flash, if you use them, are also kept up to date.
And of course good security software is absolutely essential. Security software should include layered protection that incorporates both signature-based detection and zero-day detection.
Zero day protection is absolutely essential because it identifies new threats as they are released, such as ransomware that has been tweaked to avoid signature-based detection defences.
Good security software will also identify phishing attempts and malware embedded into advertising, flagging these risks up to you before you click on a link or an ad.

Back up your data

Back up your data on a regular basis so if your computer is locked up you don’t have to pay a ransom to get your data.
Ransomware thieves have been widening their attack vectors over the past year, in particular many NHS organisations in the UK have been hit, healthcare organisations in the US and businesses across Europe too. However, individuals are still targets and also small businesses.
As you can imagine losing access to your precious files, whether they are work documents, invoices, orders, spread sheets even photos and music files, can be devastating. There are many instances of individuals and small businesses losing access to years of files and thousands of documents. Some ransomware attackers cunningly search out back up systems too so these can be encrypted and locked as well.
So consider these back up approaches if you want to keep your data safe;

  • Back up to a cloud service, fraudsters can’t reach these and it means you can always access your data from another computer should you become a victim to ransomware
  • Back up offline so data is not reachable from the machine that is infected.  For instance you can do this with an external hard drive. However the drive should only be connected to the computer when doing the backup and then disconnected. If your backup drive is connected to the device at the time the ransomware runs, then it would also get encrypted.

Backing up your data won’t make the act of being hit by ransomware any less painful, however, it does mean that you don’t have to give into the fraudsters ransom demands because you have a copy of your data elsewhere.

What to do if you’re infected with ransomware

It should be possible to defeat all ransomware by immediately disconnecting your PC from the internet following an infection, reformatting the hard drive, and reinstalling everything from a backup.
However, this could be tricky given that different operating systems require different approaches and of course you need a degree of technical aptitude and willingness.
For instance with the Windows 8, 8.1 or 10 operating system ‘Restore factory settings’ could solve the problem, if you can get to it. You can also try typing ‘reinstall’ in the Windows search box, then click on ‘Remove everything and reinstall Windows’.
There are other approaches too though it might be simpler to run a ‘rescue disk’ from a USB stick or CD/DVD which should be simpler than trying to navigate the various options in Windows. Alternatively, you can also pop down to your local computer shop and have it bring your computer back to life. It might cost a little but it will save you a headache.

Filed under: Tips and tricks

Written by Steve Bell

Steve has a background in IT and business journalism and in the past has written extensively for both the UK national and trade press including The Guardian, Independent-on-Sunday, The Times, The Register, MicroScope and Computer Weekly. He’s also worked for most of the world’s largest IT companies in a copy and content producing capacity. He has a particular focus on IT security and has been involved in writing about the industry at various levels ranging from magazine launches to producing newsletters. He also runs a small copy writing business called Art of Words. When not bashing away at a keyboard he can sometimes be found in a boxing gym making futile efforts to keep fit or marveling at the works of Sufi poets such as Jalaluddin Rumi and Hafiz of Shiraz.

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