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Cyber defense

Colin Fagan once took a unique approach to preparing for a presentation on information security in the digital age: He set out to see just how much he could find on a person claiming she had her personal data buttoned up in cyberspace.

The forensic examiner for the Southern Oregon High Tech Crimes Task Force got permission from the woman and got to work, knowing only her name and where she lived. Within minutes, he knew details about her house, car type, license plate, children's names, where she went to high school, and even had her yearbook photo.

"In literally less than an hour, I had a pretty good portfolio," says Fagan, a retired detective sergeant with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. "And this is a person who really has hardened their target online, who doesn’t overshare."

He shared his results with members of the Southern Oregon Financial Fraud & Security Team, a group of loss prevention, bank and law enforcement officials dedicated to ferreting out financial crimes and apprehending suspects.

Fagan says law enforcement is often more reactive than preventive when it comes to the theft of personal, private information. In the age of online shopping and social media interaction, such particulars are much easier for the bad guys to swipe.

"How do I harden my target? This information is out there," Fagan says. "That’s the $100,000 question."

In 2016, the FBI's Internet Crimes Complaint Center received 237 reports of identity theft in Oregon, according to Beth Anne Steele, spokeswoman for the agency's Portland field office. Those cases accounted for a collective total of about $500,000 lost. Officials say it's a small fraction of the problem, as only about 15 percent of digital fraud crimes are reported to law enforcement.

What can you do to protect yourself? Here are 10 simple actions you can take today to better secure your personal information.

Don't overshare on social media

Going out of town on vacation this summer? Sgt. Brent Mak, who supervises Medford police's financial crimes unit, says to keep it off Facebook, Twitter, etc., until you get back. If you don't, you've just sent out an invite for thieves to kick in the door.

"'We’re leaving today for a two-week vacation.' Basically (you're saying), 'Every burglar in the valley, we’ll be gone for two weeks,'" he says.

Something as simple as a photo or an individual's birthday announcement could be used to the advantage of a fraudster or child predator, Steele says. Some posted photos also publish where they were taken automatically because of built-in geo-location software.

Even with privacy settings on, posts and photos still can be shared with strangers; it's as easy as taking a screenshot.

"Whatever you post can be made public," Steele says. "There's no guarantee that someone isn't going to figure a workaround."

The less personal information you share, the better. Think about it like a billboard on Interstate 5, Steele says. If you wouldn't want something you post on that billboard, don't digitally chisel it into your Facebook wall.

Take control of your children's devices

Internet protection etiquette may come naturally to you, but your children need to have that same understanding and put it into practice.

Whether they're using their own Smartphone, tablet or computer or using yours, you need to educate and supervise, officials say.

"If you don't have the ability to get into the device and periodically monitor this information, your kid could suddenly be the victim of a horrific crime and be completely surprised by it," Fagan says.

"They could be sharing information that could be damaging to your whole family accidentally."

Websites such as PCMag offer lists and reviews of parental control software packages that can filter content based on individual preferences, protect devices from malware, and allow parents or guardians to view histories of visited sites and social media activity.

But even with the safeguards in place, Steele says it's still no guarantee your children are protected, as their friends' devices might not be as well-armored. It's crucial to talk with your children about cyber bullying, online exploitation and a host of other potential Internet pitfalls before any Smartphone or tablet enters their hands, she says.

"The biggest, best defense a parent can have is to have that talk with their kids and make sure they go through some very specific topics with those kids."

Secure your Wi-Fi

Experts say secure your Wi-Fi with password protection to remain in control of who uses your wireless Internet.

Neglect this step at your own peril.

"We have worked cases where people have committed (Internet) crimes, and when we write subpoenas to find out which IP address they were using, they've popped up to completely innocent people who had unsecured Wi-Fi access," Mak says. "I think it's happening less now."

Also use discretion when accessing public Wi-Fi, especially when it comes to activities such as online banking that require you to enter sensitive personal information, the Oregon Department of Justice's Consumer Protection Division warns.

Become a password master

Even if you've made the effort to lock your devices with password protection, the lock might be easy to pick.

Avoid passwords such as "password," "1234" or your birthday. Instead, use a complex phrase with numbers and special characters. Don't use the same password for multiple applications and change passwords regularly.

Fagan has worked cases where social media users will claim an account of theirs has been hacked shortly after a breakup. The ex didn't "hack" it, though, Fagan says, just made a guess at the password.

"If you break up with someone, if there's a change in that relationship status, that's a perfect time to change passwords," he says.

Some financial institutions have begun using a login process called two-step authentication to keep their accounts more secure. Officials recommend using it. Customers enter a password then receive either a text message or email with a numeric pass code they also must enter to get in.

Keep software up to date

Staying current on updates for device and application software is key, as those updates frequently close security loopholes that can be exploited.

"If your phone comes out with new software, you don't have to necessarily download it that day," Steele says. "But don't get five versions behind, either."

Be browser-savvy

The next time you're online, take note of the ads that are part of the content you're looking at as you go. An item you just looked at on Amazon might be advertised on a website. A sponsored post on Facebook might seem strangely relevant to your interests.

This is by design.

Most web browsers and social media platforms share browsing histories with advertisers, though users have the ability to disable that in browser settings. In Google, for example, you can go to www.google.com/settings/ads and turn off "Ad Personalization."

Be a ghost

Another method of preventing your browsing data from being sent out to marketers is Ghostery, a free web browser extension that blocks this activity from happening. 

The free software, also designed to speed up page loads and increase privacy, also gives updates on which companies are tracking you, according to its website, https://www.ghostery.com.

Be app-aware

Downloading an app to your phone or tablet is easy, but you should know what you're allowing the app to do and see.

"A lot of services that exist allow you to either create an account or sign up using another service like Facebook or Google," says Trever Yarrish, co-founder of Zeal, a Medford company that designs web and mobile applications. "Any time you say, 'Yeah, sign up through Facebook,' it brings up a screen, and on that screen, it shows you what permissions you're giving to that app."

Those permissions, he says, could extend to the app posting on your behalf and seeing the contact information or photos on your device. So make sure you look at those permissions and know what you're giving up for the app.

"You just kind of have to know that there is that liability that exists," Yarrish says.

Downloading an app also comes with the trust that the company behind it will be able to secure and encrypt your information. While the security portion is fairly standard, the popularity for encryption in apps is on the rise.

"That type of technology is spreading and becoming more ubiquitous and becoming more accessible to application developers," Yarrish says. "So you're seeing it more and more. It's an invisible thing for the most part, but a lot of companies these days, when they're launching apps, they will tout that."

If you delete that app, make sure to close down the account attached to it and disconnect any third-party services you may have linked to it, too.

Arm your computer 

Make sure you install antivirus software on your computer and ensure it has an adequate firewall to help keep viruses and hackers at bay. Connecting Point computer repair technician James Von Krohn says two factors need to be weighed in selecting antivirus programs: how well they do their job, and how they affect the computer's overall performance.

"If your computer's going to be really slow because of that, it's not going to be a good experience while you're using the computer," Von Krohn says. "We try and find the ones that are the fastest, that take up the least amount of resources while giving you the most protection."

When it comes to firewalls, Von Krohn says both Macs and PCs come with built-in firewalls that are adequate, and that businesses and more advanced users typically purchase supplemental devices.

Shred your documents

With so much to think about digitally, don't forget to take steps to keep personal information out of the hands of mail thieves, too.

And ripping it up before tossing it in the trash in lieu of shredding might not be enough. According to Rogue Shred commercial operations manager Mike Jacobson, seeing torn-up mail can be an attractant.

"Tearing up information is usually a red flag to identity thieves," Jacobson says. "They don't need to put the whole thing together. They just need that little piece of information."

Such information can extend to birthdays, addresses, medical information, account numbers and Social Security numbers.

"People can steal that right out of your trash and set up an account," Jacobson says.

Rogue Shred sells one-use shred bags for $6.50 apiece. They can be purchased, filled and brought to the business, where it's shredded on site.

"It's an inexpensive insurance," Jacobson says.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Cyber defense