By Tom Kelly
January 19, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
The coronavirus crisis has transformed the way Americans take care of their health. From social distancing and frequent handwashing to masking up before entering a store, Americans have dramatically changed their behavior to meet the threat of COVID-19 head-on.
But there’s another viral danger Americans need to combat. The coronavirus crisis has sparked a massive surge in cybercrime: From just February to March of 2020, malicious website domains exploiting the coronavirus crisis for phishing and malware attacks grew by 569 percent, according to Interpol. Identity fraud, cybercrime and data theft are part of our “new normal.” Practicing good digital hygiene is now essential to keeping yourself safe from the spread of cyberattacks.
We know how to stop the spread of a disease like COVID-19. In the fight to protect your physical health, you are your own first line of defense. The coronavirus spreads rapidly through unprotected populations, but it can be slowed and even stopped by keeping yourself away from high-risk environments and by taking simple precautions to sanitize your workplace and reduce your exposure.
Cybercrime is no different. Like an invisible virus, cybercrime flourishes and spreads rapidly amid chaos, uncertainty and ignorance about its risks. Cybercriminals adapt quickly to social and technological changes and are always prepared to ambush and infect unsuspecting digital citizens with malware, ransomware and other malicious software.
The problem is that too few people are aware of just how virulent cybercrime is today and how vulnerable they are to its spread. And this is even more alarming given that, to combat the coronavirus, Americans have embraced a digital lifestyle. We are spending more time online than ever before and making most of our purchasing, entertainment and even health care decisions through online apps, portals and websites. But while a socially distanced digital lifestyle may reduce our exposure to the coronavirus, it exponentially increases our exposure to cybercrime.
Cybercriminals know this and are using it to their advantage. Since the start of the pandemic, they have exploited both the vulnerability in our digital infrastructure and the chaos surrounding the coronavirus to launch an unprecedented number of cyberattacks on businesses and individuals alike. According to the FBI, the number of daily cybercrime incidents increased by 75 percent from January to June. In May alone, cybersecurity experts reported nearly 200,000 coronavirus-themed cyberattacks per week.
But most troubling of all, the Javelin 2020 Identity Fraud Report has revealed that the latest trend is for cybercriminals to hack and hijack consumer accounts for everything from online banking to online grocery delivery. The shocking reality is that all of our prolific online activity today is an unprotected infection vector for cybercrime.
There is good news, however: It’s never too late to protect yourself. Cybercrime, like the coronavirus, can be fought with simple strategies to reduce your exposure. By putting privacy protections in place and keeping your digital footprint clean, you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim of this year’s wave of cybercrime.
Some of the most effective cybersecurity strategies are the most obvious. To keep your accounts secure, only use complex passwords and don’t use the same password for more than one account. Password managers serve as a great tool for this. Never open suspicious or unusual emails or attachments without verifying the source. And never share sensitive information online except with businesses or individuals you trust.
But these strategies aren’t enough to give you comprehensive security and protect your digital privacy from being violated. For this, you’ll also need privacy protection software. Like vaccines, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, privacy protection software can block cybercriminals from accessing and exploiting your data or infecting your computer before it’s too late. And you don’t need a background in cybersecurity to use these tools effectively; many of them are designed with non-specialists in mind.
Utilizing privacy protection software can also help you take the most proactive steps to defend yourself. Many of these software tools include functionalities for measuring your threat levels and digital exposure, informing you about the quantity and quality of the risks your current online activity presents. A new software feature we offer at IDX calls it your “privacy score.” Active risk monitoring like this is an essential element of effectively maintaining your digital hygiene.
Cybercrime is nothing new. But the intensity and virulence of cybercrime in 2020 should be a wake-up call for all of us. While we go to great lengths to protect our physical health from the coronavirus, we can’t afford to neglect digital health by ignoring the risks and dangers of today’s digital threats.
Thomas F. Kelly, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and an expert in cybersecurity technologies, is president and CEO of IDX, a Portland, Ore.-based provider of identity protection and privacy services such as IDX Privacy.
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