Cybersecurity in the Midst of a Pandemic: How to Protect Yourself from Digital Scams

Pandemics are a cyber thief’s dream come true.

Hackers prey on the vulnerable — and with a contagious virus and an uncertain economy, we all become vulnerable.

The ability to think rationally dissipates with a worried mind. In times of survival, the everyday focus shifts to keeping a roof overhead, food on the table, and staying alive. Guards are let down. Things that would have normally been questioned before are suddenly overlooked.

Scammers know this. They take advantage of this.

Don’t fall victim to their traps.

Hackers are having a field day with Covid-19. The cruelest thing about scammers is they will kick you when you are down. People are working remotely and are no longer protected by their office’s cybersecurity standards. Unemployment is rising and people are desperate for jobs and money. Cyber criminals often target those they deem susceptible to being taken advantage of.

So how can you protect yourself?

Always check the sender of an email.

Did Facebook tell you you’ve been logged out, and you need to click this link to log back in? Did PayPal tell you your account has been compromised, and you need to click here to verify your identity? Did your bank tell you your settings have expired, and you can update them here?

Not so fast.

Phishing is when a scammer sends fake emails in order to gain access to your personal information. Always, always, always check the sender address. Phishers are clever and most of the time make the email address look believable. Instead of an official email from Google coming from @google.com, they might make the email from @help.support.google.

How can you be sure it’s actually from the sender they claim to be? Search the email address online. Visit the official website of the company and see what their official email addresses are. When in doubt, do not click any links. Make any updates from the secure website itself. It’s better to assume the email may be a phishing attempt and take a moment to do a little research, then to click a link that may contain a virus or to enter your personal information on a non-secure website. Automatically assume the email is suspicious until proven otherwise.

Make sure the job posting is actually real.

With the high unemployment rate due to the pandemic, scammers are having a field day. They know millions of people are searching for work right now and overall experiencing feelings of desperation. As a result, an uptick in fake job listings are being created in order to get your personal information or steal money from you. If you receive an email from a company saying they are recruiting you, check the email address. Visit the company website to see if the job is listed on there. If you see a career opportunity on a job posting website, make sure the information matches up with the actual company. Furthermore, make sure the company exists at all.

Cyber criminals take advantage of the fact many new jobs are 100% remote.  Since you never have to come in person to interview or start the job, it is easier for them to trick you. A common scam is when you will undergo an “interview” process, followed by being offered the “job.” In order to begin the job, however, they tell you that you need certain equipment for your home office. You are told to order this equipment using your credit card or by writing a check, and you will be reimbursed. That’s where the trick is. You send them a check and they either never send you the equipment, or they “reimburse” you using a fake check which will bounce. If you used your credit card to buy the equipment from them, they now have your credit card info. Bottom line: if a “company” is asking you to make a purchase using your own money before the job even begins, it’s likely a scam.

Another popular trick is the “employer” will say they need your personal information in order to register your application. Asking for your month and date of birth, location, and full name are normal. Asking for your birth year and full social security number are not. Never, ever give out your full social security number unless you are legitimately being hired at a legitimate company. If the personal information the employer is asking for doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and ask for proof.

Take caution with contract work as well. Maybe they aren’t hiring for a full time position, but for freelance or part time work. If this is the case, like with any work, make sure a contract is signed by both parties. Read every word on the contract and ask a legal professional to review it as well. If the employer refuses to provide a contract or accept the freelance contract you sent, that’s a major red flag. Without written agreement, they don’t owe you anything. This may result in your providing free labor and not getting paid, or it could be a scam in general.

Recognize if a call is suspicious.

The internet isn’t the only place scammers may try to reach you. Some will call you directly.

Never give personal information over the phone. If you receive a call from your car insurance company, ask yourself – have they ever called you in the past? Ask for proof they are actually who they claim to be. Most banks, phone service providers, and other companies would not call you directly if there was an issue. They would first send you an email or app notification. Assume any call is actually a scammer until proven otherwise.

Recently, many people have been getting calls from a scammer posing as an IRS employee claiming a payment needs to be made today or else there will be repercussions. NEVER give your credit card number or social security number over the phone.

Another popular scam is when they call and let you know you are a winner of some sort. They may use a well known brand name like a major hotel chain. Scammers know people are in need of money during these times and are more susceptible to believing they actually won a cash prize. Resist answering the call if you are not familiar with the phone number. If it was important, they’d leave a message. If you do answer and the call seems automated or fishy in any way, hang up.

Not sure if a phone number is legitimate or not? Run a quick Google search of the number first before picking up.

Do not allow remote access to your computer.

A recent common scam is a hacker that poses as an antivirus service, or as Microsoft or Apple. They will tell you that your antivirus software needs updating, or that your computer has a virus and they can help. Do not give remote access to your computer controls. Only purchase or renew antivirus software directly through the website of an established antivirus company. Do not give out your credit card info to anyone promising they are from one of these companies. I assure you Apple or Microsoft would not contact you directly asking to take over your screen. If there was an actual issue with your computer, you would be the one to bring it into the store or call them – not the other way around.

Keep your accounts secure.

Two-step verification is the extra step that keeps hackers out. With two-step verification, even if a hacker figured out your password, there is an extra layer of security. Any time a new login is attempted, a unique pass-code is sent to the email or phone number your account is associated with. It’s another step to keep your account safe and will deter hackers who are trying to get in by guessing your password, so make sure you activate two-step on all your social media accounts and email addresses.

Speaking of passwords – you should be updating yours at least once a month for all accounts. Do not use the same password for all your accounts, or passwords that are similar with just a change in number or letter. In that case, if a hacker knows your password for even one account, they can get into all your accounts. Each password for each account should be unique and difficult to guess. For example, don’t make your password something like your dog’s name or your birth year – that’s easy for hackers to figure out just by researching public info about you. Make your passwords a random assortment of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. 

Frequently check your login activity. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Gmail can tell you when you last logged in and from where. If you’re living in Los Angeles and use an iPhone but see there was a recent login from Bangkok at 2:00am on an Android, clearly something is wrong. Immediately log out of all devices and change your passwords. You can log out from all devices anywhere in the world with the click of a button. Quickly update your password before they can get back in. If suspicious login behavior continues, report it to the platform.

Be wary of social media platforms “contacting” you.

A scam that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic is when you receive a Whatsapp or text message from a phisher posing as Instagram or another social media platform. The message reads that your account has been compromised and you need to follow this link to log in. When you follow the link, you are prompted to enter your username and password. This is how the scammer learns your login info. From there, they take over your Instagram page and hold it hostage. They may direct message your followers asking them for money, or they may demand you pay them directly to get the account back. Instagram can pick up on this suspicious behavior and shut down your page entirely, resulting in you losing everything.

This scam usually targets influencers and accounts with large followings since these pages are valuable, but remember that anyone can be targeted at any time. Know that social media companies like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and so on would never reach out to you over something like Whatsapp. Only update your password / profile info directly in the website or the app – not through an external link you were sent.

Educate and protect your family.

Since hackers are savvy, they recognize that you yourself may not open a suspicious email – so instead, they target your family members. The scammer may find the email address of your sibling, child, or parent and pose as you. They can either hack your personal email or create an email address similar to yours and contact your family members pretending to be you, making the subject line something like “Check out these photos of us!” or “I thought you’d be interested in reading this article!” But when the email is opened and the attachment or link is clicked, it actually leads to a virus.

Keep your loved ones informed and train them to be alert and vigilant when it comes to cyber thievery. Share this article with your friends and family to help educate and protect them so they do not fall victim to a scam.

When building digital strategies and expanding the online presences of my clients, I assure all accounts are secure and protected. If you are unsure if you are being scammed or want to know how you can improve your online security, reach out to me on the Contact tab.

Productivity in the time of Coronavirus: Making the most of a difficult situation

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With the global spread of Covid-19, many of us find ourselves following orders to stay home. With constant frightening headlines being thrown in our faces, it is hard to find inner peace. We worry about our loved ones, about humanity, and about ourselves. Many face unemployment or cut hours, worry about falling ill, or are simply overcome with uncertainty. It comes as no surprise that stress takes a toll on the body. According to psychology experts, stress can disrupt the communication between the brain and the immune system – which means that ongoing stress makes us more susceptible to illness and disease.

Right now is the time we need to be physically and mentally stronger than ever to fight through this.

Whether you are in quarantine, on lock down, working from home, or practicing social distancing, it is easy to find yourself feeling bored, lonely, or stir crazy. The healthiest way to combat this is to change your mindset. View this moment in history as a rare opportunity for quiet reflection. See this as a chance to reconnect with the people and things you care about. Take this as a moment to analyze what truly matters in your life. You will benefit greatly if you alter your mindset to view this as an opportunity rather than a prison sentence.

Here are 10 ways you can make the most of the current Coronavirus situation.

 

1. Check in and connect with family and friends.

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When we’re juggling our busy professional and personal lives, being in touch with those we care about sometimes falls by the wayside. With this newfound time on your hands, make the effort to pick up the phone and call.

“FaceTime dates” are a great way to have lunch, dinner, or tea “together” with friends or family via videochat and engage in conversation. For those of us who are used to eating in the company of others, this helps combat loneliness. You can also enjoy movie nights with friends online by watching a film or show on streaming services like Netflix Party or Amazon Prime Video and discussing your reactions in a group chat. Something I’ve found helpful is exchanging Whatsapp calls and voice notes with my friends from around the world in order to learn more about the current situation in their countries.

Whichever medium you choose, check in on those you care about and have a (probably long overdue!) catch up session.

2. Self reflect.

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I can’t remember the last time I sat down and took a moment to look inward. This week, however, I’ve been doing it almost every day. Check in with yourself. Take a deep breath and think of all that you’re grateful for. Analyze the patterns in your life. You might uncover some deeper questions, such as “Why do I allow toxic people in my life?” “Did I ever fully heal from this experience?” or “How do I break the chain of unhealthy behavior?” Without the excuse of having to be out somewhere and doing something, we now have the opportunity to look deep within and ask ourselves the things we may have been suppressing for a long time.

If you’re unsure of where to get started on your introspection journey, try these questions and exercises. Self reflection is essential to personal growth. Perhaps these realizations will guide you into better habits once life returns to a normal pace.

3. cook and learn new recipes.

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With many restaurants and dining establishments closed, you are bound to spend a lot of time in your kitchen. Rather than viewing cooking as a chore, find ways to fall in love with it. Get creative with recipes and experiment with different types of cuisines. You might discover a new favorite dish you want to cook for guests once this all blows over.

Cooking is also highly therapeutic. As you are chopping vegetables or kneading dough, your mind is simply focused on the task at hand rather than going down the rabbit hole of dark thoughts. According to this Movement Counselor, “Cooking helps mental health in that it can be a creative outlet. It’s a way to channel energy, can be used as a distraction, help build mastery in a skill, and a way to express emotions through a different medium.”

You don’t want to feel like you’re eating the same five things over and over again, so now is the time to experiment with new recipes. Not sure where to begin? Check out some online recipes and discover delicious yet easy to make meals to see how it’s done.

Allow cooking to become a highlight of your day. Take pride in the rewards of your efforts that went into making yourself a good homemade meal rather than ordering off a menu.

4. Start a home workout routine.

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If your local gym is closed, you can still find ways to exercise. Movement is important to keep your body strong during these trying times. Exercise has long been proven to improve your mood. According to Mayo Clinic, physical activity helps bump up the production of endorphins which are your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, aid in sleep patterns, and lower symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety.

You don’t need an entire fitness studio to be able to work out. Even if you have a small apartment like me, you can move some furniture around and set aside a designated space to be your “home gym.” I turned my living room into a mini fitness area with three yoga mats, weights, and other small exercise equipment. If you don’t have these items, you can order online on Amazon or with fitness retailers.

If you are a yogi or wanting to learn yoga, there is a variety of at-home yoga videos available for free online. Fitness company Down Dog is making their popular exercise apps Down Dog, Yoga for Beginners, HIIT, Barre, and 7 Minute Workout – which usually require purchasing – completely free until April 1st. In light of school closures, they are also offering free access until July 1st for all K-12 and college students and teachers.

Plenty of free fitness tutorials and workout videos can also be found on the account pages of fitness gurus posting on Snapchat, Youtube, and Instagram. For example, trainer Katie Austin is sharing a daily series of home workouts you can do using less than five feet of space. 

If you are working from a computer for long hours, consider getting a standing desk. Otherwise, periodically take ten minute breaks to get up from your seat to stretch and move your muscles.

5. Take up those hobbies you’ve been putting off.

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I have a bookshelf filled with books I haven’t touched in years. Guess who rediscovered the joys of reading this week? I bet you have at least one interest you’ve been neglecting simply because you are too busy with work and your outside life. Reconnect with your hobbies and rediscover the gratification they bring you. For me, this means writing poetry, editing my photography, organizing the hundreds of videos from my travels, updating my website, practicing salsa, drawing, discovering new music… the list goes on.

Until now, I didn’t realize how many personal hobbies I let go by the wayside and all the small joys I was robbing myself of. Hobbies can also be healthy distractions from the daunting 24-hour news cycle. Take a break from the statistics and focus your mind on an activity you haven’t done in a while. You are bound to feel more productive as a result. 

6. Organize your home.

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You know those chores that only take 15 minutes to do but you’ve been putting off for two months? Yeah.. it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to them! Since you are in your home all hours now, you might as well make it a space you feel good in.

Reorganize your closet and sort your dresser drawers. Rearrange your furniture and try out new decor. Tidy your space by doing simple things like wiping down counter tops and making your bed every morning. Perhaps become a “plant parent” and adopt plants to breathe some life into your home. You now have time for those more mundane tasks like vacuuming, mopping, shampooing the carpet, doing the dishes, and tackling that mountain of laundry, so take advantage. If your home is messy and cluttered, your life will feel like it, too.

Remember the Danish concept of hygge and do things that make your home feel cozy – like lighting candles, using soft fuzzy blankets, and hanging twinkling lights . You’re going to be here for a while, so create a clean and tidy space you’re proud to call home.

7. Give back.

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No matter how difficult your situation is, there are always others out there that need help. This is the time when humanity needs to come together and support one another. Everyone is affected by this virus in one way or another; some of us more than others. Do research and uncover how you can help your local community.

For example, I found an organization in Los Angeles that will come to your home and pick up supplies and redistribute the materials to those who need them. So far I have donated shampoo, soap, conditioner, disinfectant/sanitizer, face masks, toiletries, pet supplies, and other household items to those in need without having to leave my apartment building. Money is the fastest way to help. If you are financially able to, make donations to organizations who are aiding those affected. Consider directly donating to individual fundraisers.

Being in isolation doesn’t have to mean cutting yourself off and adopting an “every man for himself” mentality. See if there are any elderly people in your building or neighborhood who need help getting things like groceries or medicine. Check in on your neighbors and let them know how you can be of help. Compassion and care are how we will get through this. In dark times, the most beautiful aspects of humanity can shine through.

8. stay informed of policy updates and assistance.

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There are forms of assistance for those who are struggling. Read up on the latest policies in your area that help protect citizens financially affected by the pandemic.

The Trump administration is suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April to help those affected by the virus. The Treasury Department and IRS announced that the federal income tax filing due date is extended from April 15th to July 15th. Here in Los Angeles, drivers will rejoice to discover that parking tickets are being suspended. Utility suppliers such as conEdison have announced electricity will not be shut off if you are unable to pay. Additionally, late payment fees will be waived, there will be no fees for payments made with credit/debit cards, and customers can arrange for payment extensions online.

New policies are being put in place, so stay up to date on the ways you can be aided. If you need food, supplies or household items, research local organizations that are donating to those in need. In Los Angeles, Ground Game is accepting both donors and recipients for funding and materials. Reach out to see if your friends know of resources or look online on Google and Facebook. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. These are trying times and there should be no shame in getting the help you need.

9. Evaluate your career path.

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We are usually too occupied by the day-to-day motions to reflect on the larger goals. Are you happy with your career path?

If you unfortunately lost your job as a result of the pandemic, evaluate what your next steps are. What kind of jobs do you see yourself doing? What type of careers will be needed in the years to come versus which ones will likely dissolve due to automation and artificial intelligence? Read up on the Emerging Jobs Report. You can start your job search by visiting your state’s career service website, reaching out to recruiters on LinkedIn, and browsing job listings on websites such as Indeed, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn Jobs, and Monster

During times of crisis, people and companies reveal their true colors. If you are still employed, how did your employer react to the virus outbreak? Did your manager callously ignore health concerns and still force you to come into work? Did your company’s board step up to the plate and show that they truly care about the safety and well-being of their employees? Would you say you are in an encouraging work environment or a toxic one? Do you see a path for growth? Ponder these questions and make a plan for the near future. Really think about what your goals are in advancing your career. If your career path is no longer serving you entirely, think of what type of job would bring you fulfillment.

Now is also a great time to take online courses to sharpen your skills and watch digital tutorials to help build new ones.

10. Practice healthy habits.

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If you’re following the news cycle all hours of the day, you’re going to psych yourself out. While it is important to stay up-to-date and informed, do not drown yourself in headlines.

Limit your social media consumption by giving yourself an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to check your feeds. Keep your body fueled with nutritious foods such as vegetables, legumes, and fruits: save the packaged non-perishables for down the line. Keep water by your side at all times and stay hydrated. If weather permits, keep your windows open to allow air circulation. Have fun with your beauty routine and pamper your skin – this means getting around to trying those facial masks and exfoliating scrubs that have been sitting in your bathroom for months! Most importantly, catch up on all that sleep you’ve been missing. Take advantage of not having to commute by sleeping in an extra hour.

While some will succumb to heavy snacking and couch potato habits, make a conscious decision to nurture your body/mind/spirit. It needs all the extra love it can get right now.

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Thank you for reading. I wish that you and your family will remain safe, healthy, and well. Take necessary precautions such as avoiding social contact and staying home. Visit the CDC website for official Covid-19 guidelines and information. If you are experiencing symptoms of the Coronavirus, seek immediate medical attention.