SonicWall, a leading perimeter security vendor, issued a mid-year update to its annual threat report in July. Amid the global disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic some threat trends are surprising:

  • The number of malware attacks is down by 33%.
  • The instances of ransomware are up globally by 20%, but over 100% in the US.
  • Office files (Word, Excel, and PDF) continue to be used primarily for malicious intent.

There was a huge spike of IoT malware — up as much as 50%.
Also noted, but not at all surprising: Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting the large number of employees who are working from home.

Cybercrime has increased since the start of the pandemic, and the latest targets now include medical facilities, hospitals, and research labs. These focused attacks have two purposes: First, to disrupt normal business and day-to-day activity; second, to obtain research data related to potential vaccines and coronavirus solutions. Nation states – most likely China, Russia, and North Korea – are very interested in obtaining intellectual property. Based on these attacks, it appears to be far easier for these cybercriminals to steal someone else’s work than to do their own.

New, never-before-seen malware variants found in the first half of 2020 increased by more than 60%. This occurred despite the overall decline in the number of malware attacks. From this, we surmise cybercriminals are experimenting to see what version can effectively get through normal defenses.

In the first half of 2020, Office files and PDFs comprised one third of all new malicious files. One of the key takeaways from the analysis of these files is that “threats are becoming more evasive and more nefarious.”

However, ransomware is on the rise. By way of contrast, global ransomware rose 15% in all of 2019. In the first half of this year, despite a global pandemic that constrained most business activity in the second quarter, it is up 20%.

The report notes a very strong correlation between where the coronavirus hit and when ransomware attacks occurred. Looking closely at the numbers, I believe this trend will continue, and the United States is going to experience more cybercrime during the next few months until the rest of the country (particularly the South and West) reduce the number of infections.

One of the scariest aspects of these recent attacks is summarized as follows:

“To make matters worse, many ransomware operators have taken to selling or otherwise releasing company data if the organization refuses to or cannot pay.

“Even for companies that cooperate with the criminals’ demands, the trouble often doesn’t stop when the ransom is paid. Many organizations pay the ransoms, only to find their files are irretrievably corrupted or have been wiped out altogether. Ransomware attacks are so devastating that they’ve forced a number of companies out of business.”

Here is an analogy to put that in perspective. A stranger breaks into your house, steals some of your belongings, and contacts you, offering to sell them back. You agree, and after the items are returned, you find they are damaged beyond repair. Worse, some of the personal documents you kept in your desk drawer have been published on the internet so that everyone can see your financial position. You, as an individual, would be mortified. When this happens to a small business, the consequences are enormous.

In terms of IoT – devices that connect to the internet to provide various services – the first six months of 2020 saw twice the number of attacks as 2019. The report forecasts that the end of the year may show numbers surpassing the combined values of 2018 and 2019.

In the consumer space, IoT devices include: Amazon Echo, Nest smoke alarm, Ring doorbell, various home security systems, smart TVs, and even smart refrigerators. http://iotlineup.com has an extensive list.

In the business environment, IoT devices include: smart locks, smart video cameras, and smart lights and energy management. These components comprise all the security elements of typical building management functions.

What’s the motivation of cybercriminals to attack these devices? They are looking for a “back door” into networks with lower chances of detection so they can deploy other forms of malicious software to compromise the computers on that network. It is essential for both the IoT device manufacturers and people who use them to insist that security considerations should be top of mind for all new devices (older ones are unlikely to be retrofitted).

I don’t think have made any mention of Coinhive in recent editions because I knew it had been shut down in early 2019. But just to recap: Coinhive was a cryptocurrency mining service that installed software in a computer’s web browser to exploit that computer’s resources to mine bits of the cybercurrency, Monero.

In 2020, as if there wasn’t enough anguish, there is a replacement called XMRig, another Monero cryptominer. In June, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced that XMRig was among the three signatures that make up 90% of potential threats.

So, there you have it. From SonicWall’s perspective, we were not even half-way through the year and things were already looking pretty dicey from a security standpoint. There is general consensus among security companies that attacks will only increase, and as the coronavirus continues to beat down United States businesses, along with the disruption from the upcoming presidential election, the cybercriminals are not going to stand idly by. They are going to take full advantage of the turmoil, and they will exploit it to the best of their ability.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Some phishing campaigns work by impersonating well-known organizations or brands. If cybercriminals send an email that looks just like one that comes from a company you are familiar with – and possibly even doing business with – then their hook is set. You can either take the bait or delete the email.

Microsoft is a tempting target for cybercriminals to spoof because it has a large number of subscription-based products, like Office, OneDrive, Outlook, and even Windows.

In mid-July, Abnormal Security, which specializes in preventing email fraud, discovered two different attacks designed to trap unsuspecting victims with subscription renewal. The crooks impersonated actual email notices from Microsoft. Their goal was to steal sensitive information from the recipients by convincing them that they need to renew their Microsoft Office 365 subscription.

The first campaign consists of an email telling the recipient that Office 365 is now called Microsoft 365 and that they should renew their subscription by a specific due date. The email contains a “Click to Renew” link that takes the recipient to a submission form requesting certain sensitive data, such as name, address, and credit card number.

In the second campaign, the email warns the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription has already expired and that by a particular date, they must renew it. A “Renew now” link takes the person to a PayPal page that prompts them to enter their PayPal payment details. (I had to look this up, but I learned that Microsoft does accept PayPal.) Typically, the transaction is processed directly, but in this case, it goes to the criminal’s PayPal account.
In both cases, anyone who took the bait will eventually find their PayPal payment information misappropriated and their Microsoft credentials compromised by the attackers.

Why These Attacks Work

A convincing phishing attack incorporates a variety of elements to trick its recipients. These two campaigns adopt several familiar tactics.

  • Official source. By pretending to look like an automated notice from Microsoft, the email gives the appearance of coming from an official source. As such, the recipients may be more likely to follow the instructions in the email.
  • Sense of urgency. Like any effective marketing campaign, the emails conveyed a sense of urgency by warning the recipient that their Microsoft 365 subscription needs to be renewed or has already expired. Further, both emails gave the recipient only a couple of days to renew before the deadline was up. Because Microsoft Office is considered an essential service by many individuals and small businesses, people may overlook the suspicious signs and quickly click on the link to try to renew.
  • Convincing landing page. Hosted on a web site called “office365family.com,” the landing page for the first campaign uses the Microsoft Office 365 name and branding to appear legitimate. The page also borrows images, links, and a website footer from Microsoft’s actual site. However, there are telltale signs that the page is not legitimate. The fonts are inconsistent and many of the header links are broken.
  • Real URL. The second campaign links to an official PayPal page. Yet, there’s no verification as to the product being purchased, no specific entity or individual as the payee, and no guaranteed transfer of goods.

How to Protect Yourself

To guard yourself against these types of phishing campaigns, take the following steps:

  • Double-check the sender’s name and email address to ensure that they’re coming from legitimate sources – don’t just trust the display name.
  • Double-check the webpage’s URL before signing in. Attackers will frequently hide malicious links in redirects or host them on separate websites that can be reached by safe links. This technique allows them to bypass link scanning within emails by traditional email security solutions.
  • If the web site name looks suspicious, do not enter your credentials! Instead, contact me if you have any questions.
  • Verify the information with your office administrator or IT solutions provider for cloud-based subscriptions.

Analysis

If you ask why anyone would do this, the answer is simple: these campaigns generate significant revenue for little effort. One result is straight-forward, because PayPal provides funds directly to the cyber criminal’s account. The one that gains access to a business’ email account is another way. How? Well with those credentials, they now have a list of all of their contacts. They can see who works for which business and can then craft a third, and more disconcerting scam: Business Email Compromise (BEC) or CEO fraud.

A follow-up campaign will be sent to those contacts attempting to claim missing accounts, or asking for wire transfer payments, or various “we need this funding by this time” emails that use social engineering to convince office administrators and in-house bookkeepers to send money to the stated claimant. Only, these emails are not from who they say they are. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), businesses in the United States lost more than $1.7 billion in 2019 to BEC scams.

Protecting your business from this kind of malicious email threat follows similar rules to those I stated above. And I’ll add one more factor to keep yourself and your business safe: If you get an unexpected email that asks you to send funds, CALL the person who is requesting it to confirm they sent it. It takes one minute to make a call. It could save you and your business tens of thousands of dollars.

Thanks, and safe computing!

I have written frequently about various scams and wrongdoing that have been perpetrated by “bad actors” around the world. Their attempts to profit by phishing for your personal information, obtaining your company’s data, or by wreaking havoc on your computers to collect a ransom have continued unabated. According to several threat analysis reports, these violations are escalating.

Accordingly, I have built what I consider to be an adequate security solution to offset, if not lessen, those threats. But as we all know, these unscrupulous offenders are relentless in their pursuit of illegal gains – because of the high payoff from their activities.

While reducing the number of attacks is one thing, I no longer believe that it is possible to eliminate them. I want to make sure that small business owners are aware of a variety of defenses that they can put in place to help prevent various attacks from ending badly for them and their business.

If you think back in historical terms, a castle had many defenses: the moat, the drawbridge, the battlements, the inner wall, and finally, the walls of the building itself. A business must have similar levels of security mechanisms in place to prevent cyber-attacks from causing devastation. Because without multiple layers of protection, the likelihood is, something malicious will get through, and whatever that something is, it will wreak havoc on you and your business.

In mid-June, I attended a webinar that featured one session that blew my simple analogy to shreds. Bruce McCully, president of Galactic Advisors, has come up with a more sophisticated method of determining risk, and thus, identifying areas of improvement for security measures for small businesses.

His approach comprises six layers of protection, which surround the assets of a company. He defines assets as any file system data, a Human Resources system, Payroll data, or database. Those six layers are:

  1. Human
  2. Perimeter
  3. Network
  4. Endpoint
  5. Application
  6. Data

The Human layer describes, as you would expect, the actions taken by the employees of a company. They are the first line of defense against any attacks on any small business, but they are also the weakest. This is why policies, procedures, and training are so important.

The Perimeter layer describes the rules required by the company’s firewall. A firewall is an appliance that reads the incoming and outgoing internet traffic and scans for anything unusual.

The Network layer is one that focuses on how an organization connects their computers and devices.

The Application layer involves the remote monitoring and maintenance software that IT technicians employ.

The Endpoint layer consists of the computers that run next-generation antivirus security.

Finally, the Data layer is the one that details the company’s back-up and restore policies. After all, if you are not backing up your important files – with the foresight of knowing how quickly you can restore them in the event of any attack – you are not protecting your assets.

All of this seems reasonably straight forward, and it is. Where it gets more complicated is when McCully says that it is not enough to have those layers and apply rules to them. No, he adds that it is essential to add gradations to those layers. He proposes four, although not all four apply to each segment. Those categories are:

  • Prevent
  • Guard
  • Detect
  • Mitigate

Yes, it would help if you prevented terrible things from happening. It takes a significant amount of discussion with a business owner to determine just how he or she would want to go about doing that. But it would be best if you also guard against inadvertent data loss that is not necessarily controlled by people. Next is the ability to detect intrusions of almost any kind, and define the alerting mechanisms to ensure they are acted upon promptly. Finally, you must develop Breach Response Procedures and possibly involve a third-party Security Operations Center to track the elusive path of the threat vector that attacked your company — and clean up afterward.

McCully then describes three levels of business needs for each of these components:

  • Basic needs
  • Security compliance requirements
  • Compliance-driven mandates

For each of these, he includes the following scale:

  • Non-essential, meaning it is not a core component of the company’s security program.
  • Recommended, because it is necessary to educate the company about the solutions, whereby they will invest in a more secure environment.
  • Mandatory, which he defines as “table stakes items;” these are items that, if not implemented, are considered negligent.

This vast matrix of layers, categories, and levels is truly wonderful, and incredibly thought-provoking material. I plan to spend several weeks working to formulate my responses for each aspect of this new roadmap. And the very first step in this arduous journey will be to apply all of these elements to my business, and to shore up my documentation and defenses. I am certain the result of those efforts will be various proposals for new and improved ways in which to safeguard your home computers, your “work at home” laptops, and all the small business networks that I serve.

Thanks, and safe computing!

But what happens when something that another IT provider, or vendor, does is so not aligned with “best practices” that it makes me shudder? What if their actions could cause a serious problem at the client’s (or prospect’s) site that might have otherwise been avoided? Couldn’t I then be forgiven if I mentioned that the other guy’s effort was misguided?

I guess it depends on the circumstances.

I encountered two instances of less than stellar computer infrastructure design in the early part of June, and my frustration was significantly higher than that expressed by the folks who were affected. Could I not be forgiven if I said, “Well, you know, those guys really messed up here, but I have a way to fix it.”

But I can’t explicitly say that because I don’t always know the kind of relationship the client (or prospect) has with that vendor or IT company. Instead, I’m usually turning things around by saying something like, “Well that’s not how I do things, because after 10 years in business, I’ve learned that this approach —whatever this is — works much better.”

Of course finding the appropriate solutions to a client’s – or a prospect’s – problems is the core of my business. The tag line for Heliotropic Systems has been “Computer Systems Analysis & Design” for more than 20 years. My goal is to design and deploy computer and network hardware and software with the understanding that it is supposed to operate properly, based on the client’s requirements. In my very parochial way of thinking, I guess that’s pretty much what anyone would want, never mind expect.

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Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 7 in January 2020, which means there will be no further updates. Shortly thereafter, I will stop support as well. While that date may seem far in the future, I can assure you that’s not the case! It is less than a year and a half away, and the majority of my clients will need new computers (along with associated hardware and software) between now and that deadline. I am affected by this as well; because I have to replace my desktop and laptop.

This early reminder is designed to let you begin planning a budget for a refresh. Based on the current political talk and potentially looming trade tariffs, it is possible that computers could cost more for consumers and businesses before next year. However, I have no idea when (or if) price increases will take place, nor by how much. You can use the following approximate numbers: $800 for a computer, $200 for a monitor, $150 for a printer, and $500 for me to do the necessary work (assessment, procurement, system set up, installation, and file transfer).

I have a chart with the warranty information for each of my clients’ computers. I will send you a letter 60 to 90 days in advance of its expiration to find out how you would like to proceed. Some of you may decide you want to move to an Apple Mac, others may opt for Ubuntu Linux, and still others Google Chromebook. We can discuss those options in the coming months.

Please note that recently purchased Windows 7 computers are eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. I will contact Lenovo to obtain the software update for you. Other Windows 7 computers may not be eligible for free software, but could still run Windows 10 (an additional purchase). Again, I will discuss these options with you as well.

Look for more frequent reminders, along with Windows 10 usage tips, in future editions of this blog.

Cisco Systems earlier this week released a report from its Talos cyber intelligence unit. It contained a warning of 500,000 routers and storage devices in 54 countries that have been infected with malware. Their findings (https://blog.talosintelligence.com/2018/05/VPNFilter.html) pointed to the Russian government as having sponsored the hack, calling it “VPNFilter,” and that the software was simply waiting for activation. With a high preponderance of these devices in the Ukraine, it seems that an attack might be pending, or at least imminent.

I won’t bore you with the details (and they are voluminous), but the recommendations for how to thwart the hackers are quite interesting. End users are instructed to reboot their routers, modems, and network attached storage (NAS) devices to the factory default state and then to install the latest firmware. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are instructed to reboot routers and cable modems for their customers and to ensure the devices are patched. Those two steps should, for all intents and purposes, knock out any of the malware that may have infected the devices.

Here’s my question: How many home users – or business owners – know how to perform those two steps? I do, because it is something I learned a long time ago as part of my job. But I can’t see asking any of my clients to do that. For one thing, the recommendations didn’t take into account the main task of saving existing settings – or at least writing them down – so they could be recreated after the device was flashed and rebooted.

In a “best case scenario” I can imagine someone was using a Linksys modem they purchased from a big box store and they didn’t configure anything; they simply followed the installation instructions. But in all likelihood, the SSID (i.e., the broadcast name) of their Wi-Fi is going to change. That means all of their wireless devices – computers, printers, tablets, and phones – will also need to be reset.

The report acknowledges that most of these devices are what we frequently call “set it and forget it,” meaning that they are expected to simply do their job once they’ve been installed. My concern about the recommendations centers on the fact that most individuals have no idea how to obtain the current firmware for these network attached devices. It isn’t very obvious from any of the manufacturers’ literature (and these include Linksys, TP-Link, and Netgear) that this is a task anyone should ever consider doing.

Granted a half-million devices is only a small drop in the bucket in terms of world-wide network device distribution. Yet it seems we have entered into a new “normal” for what people need to do – and learn – in order to better protect themselves from cyber security threats.

Thanks and safe computing!

I received a phone call from a major distributor earlier this week asking me if I knew about a new line of laptops issued by the electronics giant LG. I admitted that I was a Lenovo partner, and was partial to their offerings, but I was interested in seeing what the competition had available.

A short while later I received the email, the bulk of which is shown below.

 

At first I was intrigued, because it looked like it was going to be a light-weight model that could be useful for some road warriors. That is until I got to the last word of the text, and I stopped short. In my head I heard the cartoon sound of tires screeching to a stop.

I then re-read the title, “Professional Redefined.” At that point I was horrified because of the dissonance in the ad copy.

It starts with the word “professional” in the first line and ends with the words “Windows 10 Home” in the last.

If “professional redefined” means using consumer-based products in a business environment, I am absolutely and totally against it.

I am a managed services provider (MSP), and I sell IT support services to small businesses.

One of the main points I make as an MSP is that a business must use business-class (or even enterprise-class) products, because they are designed to be properly managed, provide greater security, and offer additional features used by businesses.

Windows 10 Home does not fit in those categories at all.

I cannot, in good conscience, even consider these devices for my clients.  But now I’m wondering how much grief this LG marketing campaign is going to cause other MSPs who will have to tell their clients, “No, I’m sorry, it looks nice and shiny, but it isn’t suitable for your office.”

And no offense to LG, but if you are going to redefine the word “professional,” I would hope – very sincerely – that you would aim for something higher up on the scale, instead of lower.

Thanks and safe computing!

Think back to the first time you ordered a book on Amazon.com. Wasn’t that a miraculous experience?

Just the thought of not having to sit in traffic to drive to the mall, and the ability to avoid the crowds while you sat at your desk and browsed through thousands of books without screaming kids or having someone looking over your shoulder as you decided between two authors. All of that was achieved with cloud technology. Of course, back then you used dial-up technology to connect to the internet. Things were slow, but you didn’t care – you thought that it was wonderful.

My, what a difference a decade has made!

The simple fact is, cloud computing is NOT a good fit for every company, and if you don’t get all the facts or fully understand the pros and cons, you can end up making some VERY poor and expensive decisions that you’ll deeply regret later.

First, you’ve got to review the standard features of any cloud-based software product. These include flexibility in terms of migrating your existing data to the software vendor’s product, thus obviating the need for hardware expenditures. You’ll be in a position to give your employees the ability to collaborate on the same information at the same time even if they are in diverse locations. And lastly, you will be able to scale up (or ramp down) the number of software licenses to match the speed of growth within your organization.

So if you are interested in using cloud technology for your business, you must start with your internet connection; in this case, the faster the better – as long as it fits within your budget. And, as a successful business owner, you know that something can go wrong at the most in opportune time and you know that you want to avoid that. Therefore, you should ask your IT professional about a cellular failover device to provide redundant back-up service for your internet service provider’s service.

When you work with any cloud software vendor you must understand that they will be keeping YOUR data on THEIR servers. You should find out from the software vendor how they will protect your data from any form of breach, and what actions they will take on your behalf if such an event occurs.

And, because your data is an integral part of your business, you have to ensure that it is backed-up as well as protected. By moving to the cloud you do not get to forego standard data-related housekeeping chores; you simply offload the responsibility to another party. But you should ascertain that they are going to be good stewards of your information by asking them how often data is backed up, and what their retention scheme is.

You will also want to review any and all mechanisms available to you if you decide to terminate your arrangement with the cloud provider. Reasons for this can be varied: They may be going out of business; you may feel you can no longer work within the constraints of the product because it has not evolved over time; or your organization has grown to the point that the product no longer suits your needs. At the very least, you don’t want your data to be held hostage. It is, after all your data. Know beforehand about the means to download it or how you could perform a data migration to another vendor.

All of this means that you should carefully review all of the terms and conditions associated with your account. If you are unsure of anything, or how you would be affected, print it out and have your lawyer review the document.

Because you’ve read this post, I’d like to offer you a FREE Cloud Readiness Assessment to show you there IS a better way to upgrade your computer network AND to demonstrate how a truly competent IT professional (not just a “computer guy”) can guide your company to greater profits and efficiencies, help you be more strategic, and give you the tools and systems to fuel growth.

To respond, please call our office at 866-912-8808 and ask for me, Larry. I personally want to take your call to answer any questions about this blog post, my company, and how we might be able to help you.

One day, you look in the Windows Task Scheduler and see the message:

The selected task “{0}” no longer exists.  To see the current tasks click Refresh

symNG2

Well after you click OK and then click Refresh, you are still missing that task.  And Windows is really great about not informing you of what that task is.

Other articles on the Internet suggest going through the actual Tasks folder to determine where the disconnect is.  I think I have an easier solution for anyone using a Symantec security product, particularly the Symantec Endpoint Protection Small Business Edition (also known as Symantec.cloud).

Open an elevated command prompt and issue the following commands:

cd \
cd program files\symantec.cloud\antivirus
avagent –SHOW_UI

The GUI will be displayed. (Norton Internet Security users simply open the product.)  Depending on your version, the screen’s appearance may differ from the one shown below (which is from NIS 21.5.0.19)

Click on Settings, and select the General tab.

symNG3

When you click the question mark to the right of the Idle Time Optimizer, you see the web page that explains that this “feature” automatically defragments the hard drive when the user is inactive for a period of time.

symNG4

I find this too pretentious for words.  If I have set a disk defragment schedule on my computer, or any of my clients’ computers, I fully expect those schedules will be maintained and adhered to.  I certainly don’t expect my security software to come along and interfere with them.  Even worse, is the error message that ends up being displayed as a result of Symantec’s change.

So, turn off the Idle Time Optimizer.  Click OK to apply.  Close the GUI, and the command prompt.

After you turn off this setting, click the Windows Start button, type “defrag” (without the quotes) in the Search bar to launch the Windows Defragmenter.  Change any one of your existing settings to force the entry back into the Task Scheduler.   You can reset the minor change immediately, and then close the Defragmenter.

Now, go back to the Task Schedule and see that there is no error message.

There you have it, an amazingly simple solution to a vexing (and stupidly annoying) error message.

I have been working with the Windows 10 Technical Preview for several weeks now. It is slowly starting to stabilize, and I am becoming slightly more proficient in working with and around it.

Just the same I have some concerns that lead to questions for which I have not found answers.

I am concerned about support for vendor-specific device drivers from the likes of Dell, HP, and Lenovo. In many cases these manufacturers did not provide new or updated drivers for Windows 8 / 8.1 for “recently released” Windows 7 computers.

What’s going to happen when someone thinks they can update to Windows 10 because Microsoft said it was possible – and they no longer have network access because there are no Windows 10 drivers for their network card? The only option at present is to roll back the upgrade and hope that the computer still operates properly.

I am also concerned about what is going to happen after the first “free” year of Windows 10 as a service. What is Microsoft going to charge consumers and small businesses to continue using the operating system on their computers, laptops, and tablets? Will there be a “buy one – get two free” offering? Will each device require a subscription? How much money does Microsoft think consumers will be willing to spend monthly or annually?

I am patiently waiting for some answers to come from Redmond…