Hang up to avoid becoming a victim of a phone scam

I’m occasionally asked how to avoid becoming a victim of the robocall-driven phone scams that seem to be so common and prevalent nowadays.

The answer is fairly straightforward: Hang up.

If someone calls you with an offer, do not give them any information, just terminate the call. If someone tells you your computer is infected with a virus and you need to install a particular tool to clean it, disregard their instructions and immediately end the conversation. If someone asks you to wire money somewhere for any reason, refuse and tap your phone’s End button.

Why is it always safe and prudent to hang up, even if you’re not sure? Because hanging up won’t hurt your relationship with a legitimate business or a government agency. You should only provide sensitive information over the phone when you originate the call. Caller ID can be spoofed and businesses you have a relationship with can be impersonated.

So you need to be careful.

To avoid falling for scams, don’t give someone who calls you any sensitive information at all, and don’t let them direct you to do anything, whether that’s wire money someplace or install software on your computer.

And, if time allows, report scams so that they can be investigated by the authorities.

This morning, a group of scammers who are engaged in harvesting credit card numbers called me. I answered the phone and knew within seconds it was a scam, but decided to play along for as long as I could in order to (a) learn more about the scam and (b) waste the scammers’ time.

This particular group of scammers was running a con that goes like this:

  • Place a robocall to lots of people that advertises being able to get lower interest rates on credit cards (the brands Visa and MasterCard, which are networks, not issuing banks, are specifically mentioned)
  • Screen people who respond to the robocall by pressing “1” to see if they are an appropriate target for the scam by asking a bunch of fake qualifying questions that pretty much everyone would answer “yes” to;
  • Transfer the call to a fake “supervisor” who will then attempt to extract credit card numbers from the victim.

These scammers use some of the same techniques physics and magicians use. For instance, to establish their credibility and get you interested, they ask their would-be victims questions like: “You have three or more credit cards, correct? And you’re paying interest of more than ten percent on each card? And you’d like to pay less interest on those cards?”

(Most people would be able to answer yes to these questions.)

Among those Americans who have a credit card (29% don’t), the average is almost four cards. That means most Americans with a credit card have several of them, typically at least three. Hence the scammers’ question, “You have three or more credit cards, correct?”

The next question they asked was which banks the cards were issued from. I told the screener I had cards with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and CapitalOne, all of which are major card issuers with millions of customers. To all of the other screening questions, I offered responses like: “Great!”, “Excellent!,” “Yeah, sure,” or “That’s right.”

I was also told that I am a good customer and that I have a long history of making payments on time.

After I got through screening and was passed off to a more senior member of the scamming crew, I was asked for card numbers, beginning with my nonexistent Bank of America card. I used a credit card number generator to give the scammer a fake number, to see what he would do, and discovered he was trying to validate (and maybe authorize) the numbers in real time.

When the scammer protested that the sixteen digit number was invalid and not even a number beginning with a Bank of America prefix, I said, “Oops, sorry about that; try this,” and supplied a second fake number.

“Sorry, sir, that is not a valid Bank of America credit card number either,” the scammer said solemnly, a hint of contempt and resentment in his voice. “Darn,” I said. “That’s a shame.” He promptly hung up.

In this case, instead of hanging up on the scammers, I forced them to hang up on me, and I wasted several minutes of their time while learning more about their scam… a satisfying result.

If you only get robocalled once in a while, you may be able to deal effectively with the occasional scammer simply by hanging up the phone. Terminating a call is the simplest and easiest way to thwart phone scams.

If scam and spam calls are a frequent annoyance, however, you may want to go further so you can reclaim your time and sanity. There are many tools that can help shield you from unwanted calls of all kinds, scam calls included.

For example, there’s Jolly Roger Telephone Service, which can deploy bots to talk to telemarketers and their bots for you.

Or Nomorobo, which can protect VOIP lines and mobile lines. (Most VOIP providers, like Vonage and Ooma, include Nomorobo as part of their plans.)

Or Truecaller, which provides an app for mobiles that can be used to identify unknown numbers, record calls, and block numbers.

Scammers are wily people who have ways of evading defenses like number blocks, so don’t expect any of the aforementioned tools to totally eliminate unwanted calls. Your best defense of all against phone scammers is your own good judgment and critical thinking skills.

If more people had the equivalent of a Spidey-sense for detecting scams, scamming wouldn’t be as lucrative and profitable as it is. So pass on your scam fighting knowledge! It makes a difference.

Don’t give out your personal mobile telephone number by default

This week, the New York Times published a stellar piece by Brian Chen which spells out the problems that stem from giving out your mobile number when asked for a means of being contacted by phone:

For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to share a piece of personal information without a moment’s hesitation: our phone number. We punch in our digits at the grocery store to get a member discount or at the pharmacy to pick up medication. When we sign up to use apps and websites, they often ask for our phone number to verify our identity.

An increasing number of Americans don’t have landlines and have become accustomed to typing their mobile number into online forms or giving it out without a second thought to entities of all kinds. If you do that, though, you’re increasing your risk of becoming a victim of cybercrime.

In fact, your phone number may have now become an even stronger identifier than your full name. I recently found this out firsthand when I asked Fyde, a mobile security firm in Palo Alto, Calif., to use my digits to demonstrate the potential risks of sharing a phone number.

Emre Tezisci, a security researcher at Fyde with a background in telecommunications, took on the task with gusto. He and I had never met or talked. He quickly plugged my cellphone number into a public records directory. Soon, he had a full dossier on me — including my name and birth date, my address, the property taxes I pay and the names of members of my family.

The CEO of Fyde is quoted in the next paragraph explaining that phone numbers are actually more unique than names are.

Many people can be called “James Smith” or “Mary Jones”, for example, but only one of those people will have a phone number like 907-555-0100 (that’s a fake phone number, by the way.) So if you give out your mobile number by default, then you’re creating a strong link between your mobile number and your name, which can be exploited by bad actors.

What should you do instead?

First: Get a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephone number and give that out as your primary phone number instead.

Even when you’re asked for a mobile number on forms, give out your VOIP number instead. Only provide your mobile number to family, friends, and institutions you trust. For example, you’ll probably want your bank or credit union to have your mobile number, along with your parents, siblings, spouse, children, and close friends.

Reputable VOIP providers include OomaGrasshopper, and RingCentral. Ooma is primarily marketed towards residential users, while Grasshopper and RingCentral are marketed towards business users.

Note that Ooma doesn’t support text messaging. If you want a VOIP number with SMS support, don’t pick Ooma.

There are also app-based VOIP providers, like Shuffle. These provide the ability to create auxiliary phone numbers (referred to variously as secondary phone numbers and auxiliary phone numbers.)

All reputable VOIP services cost money, so there is a cost associated with setting up and maintaining a VOIP number. But it’s worth it. You’ll have a number you can give out that isn’t directly associated with the smartphone you’re carrying around and the SIM card inside it.

Second: Avoid using the Short Message Service (SMS) for two-factor authentication. Use an authenticator app instead (like Authy, available for both iOS and Android), or better yet, hardware-based authentication like a YubiKey if that’s supported. These methods are more secure than getting a code by text message and putting that in.

Many platforms that require a telephone number to set up multi-factor authentication will accept a VOIP number (Google is a good example of a provider that accepts VOIP numbers) so you can provide that instead of your mobile number when you’re going through the initial setup.

Change your Venmo privacy settings

Do you use Venmo? Your transactions are public by default. Here’s how to change that.

Venmo, the popular person-to-person money transfer service owned by PayPal, is back in the news again after a computer science student named Dan Salmon created a website profiling several of the millions of Venmo users who use the service to send and receive payments.

The reason Salmon was able to do this is because in Venmo, transaction histories are public by default. That’s right… public.

Unless you’ve specifically configured your privacy settings to hide transactions, your Venmo activity is an open book.

As Zack Whittaker of TechCrunch bluntly put it, using Venmo’s API (automated programming interface), “anyone can look at an entire user’s public transaction history, who they shared money with, when, and in some cases for what reason — including illicit goods and substances.”

Now — yes, now — would be a very good time to check your Venmo privacy settings and make sure your transaction history is set to Private. Again, this is NOT the default setting in Venmo. It should be, but it isn’t. If you want to protect your privacy, then you need to take action!

If you have the Venmo app, you can use this visual guide created by Salmon to adjust your privacy settings.

You can also adjust your privacy settings through the Venmo website. Go here and select the Private option. Then click the button under Past Payments that says “Change All to Private”. This will make that same setting retroactive to your past transactions. Here’s a visual guide:

Change your Venmo privacy settings

Travel confidently with these on-the-go financial management tips

Heading abroad on a trip this summer? Reduce your anxiety and minimize the likelihood that you’ll become the victim of a crime by following these best practices for managing your money while you’re away from home.

Tip #1: Limit the amount of cash you carry, and get it from an ATM

It’s a good idea to have some cash on your person when you’re abroad… but it shouldn’t be a huge amount, since an increasing number of places in an increasing number of countries take plastic.

You don’t need to be walking around Rome or Madrid with more than a hundred euros in your wallet, for example, since you don’t need huge sums to patronize street vendors and farmer’s markets.

You also don’t need to worry about stocking up on foreign currency before you arrive at your destination; you can get it from an ATM after passing through customs. Look for an ATM run by a reputable financial institution so you can avoid paying unnecessary fees. (Bank-owned ATMs generally have the bank’s logo prominently displayed; that’s how you can tell the difference.) You’ll be able to withdraw cash in the currency of the country you’re visiting.

Oh, and don’t bother with American Express “traveller’s cheques” … those are a thing of the past, as this traveler discovered. Hardly any establishments will accept them. Instead, bring multiple chipped credit and debit cards.

Tip #2: Keep your cash and your plastic in a money belt

Beware of pickpockets when traveling, especially while using public transit or when you’re visiting crowded tourist attractions. To protect your money and your identification, wear a money belt under your clothing so that your wallet can’t be lifted out of your pocket or purse by a skilled thief.

Tip #3: Use a credit card for purchases

Use your debit card to withdraw cash, but not to buy anything.

When you check into a hotel, rent a car, or make a purchase, always provide a credit card instead of a debit card. That way, you’re spending your bank or your credit union’s money instead of your own money.

If you experience the misfortune of your card number being fraudulently used, you won’t have to worry about a hold being placed on funds in your checking account, or worse, your money disappearing out of your account until you can get the fraudulent charges disputed. You also won’t have to worry about the many annoying restrictions rental car companies place on customers trying to pay with a debit card if you’re trying to get wheels.

Don’t have a credit card? Apply for one before you travel.

Tip #4: Tell your bank or credit union where you’re going

Most financial institutions will now let you set up travel alerts with a few mouse clicks or taps from a mobile device. You don’t even need to talk to anyone. Just log in and specify where you are going and for how long you’ll be there. By telling your bank or credit union about your travel plans, you greatly reduce the possibility that any transactions you attempt during your travels will be blocked due to suspected fraud. Do this for each bank or credit union that you have a relationship with.

Tip #5: Review your activity every night

Use your financial institution’s mobile app to review authorizations and charges that have posted to your account every night before going to bed. That way, you can quickly spot any fraudulent charges and keep track of your spending. Avoid signing into online banking using a cybercafe. If you’re connecting to the Internet through a public Wi-Fi hotpot, initiate a VPN session on your device prior to signing into your accounts.

Tip #6: Make photocopies of all of your cards before you travel

Before you depart on your trip, you should make copies of all of your cards… debit cards, credit cards, driver’s license, health insurance card, auto insurance card, and so on. You should also make a copy of your passport.

Leave one copy in your safe at home and give one to a trusted neighbor or family member who isn’t traveling with you. In the event your cards are stolen, you’ll then have an inventory of what needs to be replaced.

Bonus tip: Put your card data into your password manager too

You can also enter all of your card data into the secure vault of your password manager if you have one (and you should have one).

Microsoft recognizes that password expiration policies don’t help — they hurt

Recognizing that mandatory password changes don’t help an organization’s security posture, Microsoft last month announced that the next iteration of Windows 10 Build 1903) would no longer require periodic password changes.

In a post on Microsoft’s Security Guidance blog,

There’s no question that the state of password security is problematic and has been for a long time. When humans pick their own passwords, too often they are easy to guess or predict. When humans are assigned or forced to create passwords that are hard to remember, too often they’ll write them down where others can see them. When humans are forced to change their passwords, too often they’ll make a small and predictable alteration to their existing passwords, and/or forget their new passwords. When passwords or their corresponding hashes are stolen, it can be difficult at best to detect or restrict their unauthorized use.

Recent scientific research calls into question the value of many long-standing password-security practices such as password expiration policies, and points instead to better alternatives such as enforcing banned-password lists (a great example being Azure AD password protection) and multi-factor authentication. While we recommend these alternatives, they cannot be expressed or enforced with our recommended security configuration baselines, which are built on Windows’ built-in Group Policy settings and cannot include customer-specific values.

This reinforces a larger important point about our baselines: while they are a solid foundation and should be part of your security strategy, they are not a complete security strategy. In this particular case, the small set of ancient password policies enforceable through Windows’ security templates is not and cannot be a complete security strategy for user credential management. Removing a low-value setting from our baseline and not compensating with something else in the baseline does not mean we are lowering security standards. It simply reinforces that security cannot be achieved entirely with baselines.

Props to Microsoft for making this change.

Password expiration policies are not unlike anti-piracy measures for music and movies: They were conceived and are meant to deter bad guys, but they end up getting in the way of the good guys while failing to stop the bad guys.

Just as no one wants to have to spend thirty minutes downloading and installing a firmware update for their Blu-ray player to make a disc playable, no one likes having to change their password when they log in simply because some amount of time has passed.

If a password is set to expire every thirty days, then that means a user will be asked to change their password twelve times every year. To deal with this annoyance, users can be expected to — as said — make “small and predictable” alterations to their previous password.

A strong password stored securely in an electronic vault is better than a password that is frequently changed. Instead of setting and insisting on password expiration policies, information technology departments should require the use of password management tools, and join independent cybersecurity professionals in encouraging everyone to also set up their own password management tool for personal use.

POSTSCRIPT: Need a password manager for personal use? Try Dashlane or 1Password. Need one for a small team that doesn’t cost anything? Give CommonKey a look.

Flying this summer? Here are some tips for staying safe and comfortable

Taking to the skies this summer — or sooner? Whether you’re a seasoned jet setter or a more infrequent traveler, you may be interested in strategies to improve your experience of going from Point A to Point B. I’m a firm believer in the concept of enjoying the journey. Air travel can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some ways you can make your next flight more relaxing… or at least less painful.


You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated during your travels, so drink water whenever you feel thirsty. Water is the only thing that will actually quench your thirst. Stay away from alcoholic beverages while in the air.

“The air in an aircraft is very dry and, coupled with the diuretic effect of drinking alcohol; you may become dehydrated much faster than you would on the ground,” KLM explains. If you want to feel your best during your trip and minimize the toll traveling takes on your body, then skip the alcohol.

I also recommend staying away from carbonated beverages (unless you have an upset stomach, in which case you may want a carbonated beverage).

Most airlines offer juice (apple, orange, cranberry) in addition to water from their beverage carts. If you want a flavored beverage, choose fruit juice instead of soda or an alcoholic beverage. You don’t have to worry about ending up with a cup of Tang: In my experience, most U.S. airlines nowadays are serving one hundred percent juice out of large juice boxes, not juice made from concentrate or fake juice made with powders.

Skip the ice whenever you get a beverage from a flight attendant.

While the water airlines serve is typically bottled, the ice could have been made in an ice machine using tap water that came out of the airplane’s water tanks… and with the notable exception of Southwest, airlines don’t have such a great track record when it comes to tap water quality.

A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that one in eight airplanes had water that totally failed safety standards. A more recent round of testing, in 2013, showed not much had improved.

Also, by skipping the ice, you’ll end up with an empty cup when you finish your beverage (ideally water or juice, as mentioned) instead of a cup with still-melting, possibly also sticky ice cubes that could spill.

Avoid coffee and tea for the same reason.

To ensure that you have water at the gate as well as in the air, bring an empty Kleen Kanteen or a HydroFlask with you in your carry-on.

After you pass through the security checkpoint, fill your water bottle using either a filling station next to a drinking fountain or ask someone working at a bar or restaurant in the concourse to fill it. Don’t use a drinking fountain spout because some people put their mouths right on the spout.


If you want to be comfortable while in the air, be careful what you eat while at the gate and on the plane. In addition to avoiding alcohol, it’s also best to avoid greasy and sugary foods like burgers or pizza along with cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower.

And, to avoid irritating your neighbors, I suggest skipping smelly foods like garlic, canned fish (sardines, tuna, etc.) and onions.

Stay away from chewing gum, too… it can contribute to bloating. (Yawn, as deeply as you like, to pop those ears safely and effectively.)

Here are some foods that you can enjoy while on the plane. You should bring snacks as well as an entree or two for a longer flight.

  • Cherries. They’re one of the few natural sources of melatonin.
  • Chicken and vegetable wrap. This can be your main course.
  • Pasta salad. If you’re a vegan, this could be your main course.
  • Bananas. They go down easy and are a good source of potassium.
  • Lemons. You can use them to flavor your water if you want.
  • Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice for an energy boost.
  • Protein bars for a non-messy treat in between meals.

Essential supplies

When flying, there are some must-haves that you’ll want to keep with you besides that reusable water bottle (which is the key to staying hydrated).

  • Something to read. You can’t use a laptop during takeoff and landing, but you can read from a printed publication or handheld. To minimize weight, bring a magazine, a tablet, or an e-book reader instead of books. If you do pack a book, make it a paperback.
  • Disinfecting wipes. Airplane seat-back tray tables are dirtier than your toilet at home. Disinfect them, your armrests, and seat buckle as soon as you’re seated with Clorox on the go wipes or an equivalent product.
  • External battery. Not all planes have USB charging ports, so it’s a good idea to have an external battery pack with you, like the Anker PowerCore series.
  • Noise canceling headphones or earbuds. There’s no shortage of options right now when it comes to noise canceling headphones and earbuds. Most do an excellent job of filtering out the hum of a jet engine. Connect the pair that’s right for you to your smartphone or an inexpensive audio player like the Sansa.
  • Sleep kit. If you want to catch some Z’s while at 30,000 feet, pack an eye mask and a neck pillow.

Perhaps the most important thing to do is to give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and arrive at the gate. Remember, you can always read a book or work on your computer at the gate until it’s time for your flight.

If you’re not stressed out, you’ll feel better and have a more pleasant trip.

Happy travels!

How to give your WordPress site a security checkup

Are you responsible for a self-hosted WordPress site?

If so, one of the most important things you can do to keep it healthy is to give it a security checkup and make sure you’re maintaining it in accordance with all of the recommended best practices. That way, its likelihood of being hacked by the Internet’s hive of scum and villainy is reduced.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to giving your site a security checkup. (Most of these steps are adapted from the Hardening WordPress presentation that I’ve been giving to members of the WordPress community for several years.)

Step One: Backup your site!

There are several ways to manually back up. From within WordPress, backing up can be done with one of many plugins available from the WordPress repository. If you have shell access, making a manual backup is as easy as running a couple of commands. For example, from the directory above your site root, you could run:

bash:~$ tar -zcvf MONTH-DAY-YEAR-Site-Backup.tar.gz public_html/

Then, to make a snapshot of the database (presuming you’re using MySQL):

bash:~$ mysqldump -h hostname -u username -p databasename > MONTH-DAY-YEAR-Site-Database-Backup.sql

If wp-cli is installed on your server, exporting a database becomes even easier:

bash:~$ /home/user/path/to/wordpress/ wp db export

A few words of caution: Do not keep backup files in your publicly accessible web space unless your host doesn’t give you access to the directory above your web root. Leaving backup files in your publicly accessible web space jeopardizes the integrity of your site and is a surefire way for your credentials to leak. If backups must be stored in your web space, make sure access to that folder is restricted. On a server running Apache, this can be done by setting directives in an .htaccess file.

For bonus points, verify the integrity of the backup by using the archive files you made to create a local copy of your WordPress installation.

It’s nice to be able to know how to make a backup on demand, but the key to ensuring backups get made is automating them. This saves time and ensures that a copy of the site is being made at regular intervals.

To automate backups with shell commands, simply create a cron job by editing crontab or using your host’s cron job manager. With a plugin, you’ll need to visit the configuration page to specify how often backups should be made, and where they should be stored. You should have a set of backups stored locally on the server, and another set stored offsite in a secure cloud repository. That way, in the event disaster strikes and your host’s datacenter is beset by a catastrophe, your data is safe.

For most WordPress users, a plugin is the easiest and best way to automate and manage backups. I recommend UpdraftPlus.

Step Two: Install pending updates (if any)

Once your backup is made, you should install any pending updates to WordPress, your installed plugins, and your installed themes. You can do this using wp-cli, or from within WordPress using the built-in Updater. If you have plugins or themes installed that you bought from an online marketplace, you should go back to that marketplace and see if there are updated versions available. If there are, download them and install them by deactivating the version on your site, deleting the old code, and uploading the new version.

Some premium plugins and themes can be automatically updated from within WordPress just like ones installed from the WordPress.org repository, but access to automatic updates usually requires a license key from the developer. Consider renewing any subscriptions to premium plugins that have expired — it’ll make installing updates much simpler in the future.

Step Three: Scan your site for problems

With backups made and updates installed, it’s now time to scan your site for problems. There are several security suites available for WordPress; my favorite is BulletProof Pro. (There is also a free version of BulletProof, and that’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t have all the features of BulletProof Pro.)

Install BulletProof Pro if you don’t already have it in your site, and put the scanner to work to see if there are any issues that need your attention.

If your site has been around for a few years and has a bunch of plugins installed, chances are good that you’re using one or more abandoned plugins. This is a common security issue with WordPress websites.

There’s no need to panic if you discover you’re using a deprecated plugin, but you should take steps to switch over to alternatives that are currently maintained. If you are notified of an abandoned plugin (which is one of the most common results I see in a scan of an otherwise healthy site), head over to the WordPress.org repository to look for a replacement.

Again, chances are, you’ll find one that does pretty much the same thing as the one that is no longer maintained.

Step Four: Make sure your site is protected by a firewall

One of the capabilities you get with BulletProof is the ability to deploy a firewall. Deploying a firewall is one of the most important ways you can protect your site.

Usually, deploying BulletProof’s firewall is as simple as clicking a few buttons and running the setup wizard. At other hosts, some intervention on your part may be required to enable extended protection mode and realize the full benefits of the firewall.

Step Five: Change your passwords

Since you’re giving your site a security checkup, take advantage of the opportunity to change all your hosting-related passwords now.

Consider installing a password manager like Dashlane or 1Password to securely generate and store your new passwords. A manager greatly reduces the complexity and anxiety involved in coming up with strong passwords and keeping them safe. You should have unique passwords for:

  • your hosting control panel
  • your database (MySQL, MariaDB, etc.) user
  • your WordPress account(s)
  • any additiontal shell accounts or FTP users you have

Step Six: Turn on multi-factor authentication (MFA, also called 2FA)

Many hosts will let you add another layer of protection to your site by turning on multi-factor authentication (MFA), also called two-factor authentication.

To find out if your host will let you set up MFA to restrict access to your control panel, check their support center or knowledge base for an article about “MFA” or “2FA”.

With MFA, access to your online accounts is secured by something you *have* in addition to your password. That something could be a mobile device (the most common second factor), or a hardware authentication module like a YubiKey.

If you’re using your mobile device, I recommend using an authenticator app instead of using SMS (short message service) if possible, as authenticator apps are more secure.

The three most popular authenticator apps currently available are Google Authenticator, Authy, and Duthio.

Do you use Jetpack? Turning on multi-factor authentication at WordPress.com will help protect your site from the nasty Jetpack remote management attack that’s afflicted a lot of WordPress websites recently.

To turn on multi-factor authentication (also misleadingly called cell-phone sign in by some) for your WordPress installation’s administrator accounts as well, there’s a nfity plugin simply called Two Factor, by George Stephanis. Unlike other plugins purporting to provide 2FA, George’s supports YubiKeys, so you can use a physical key as your second factor. Physical keys are the most secure 2FA method, followed by smartphone authenticator apps like Twilio’s Authy.

Step Seven: Configure and use HTTPS on your site

Help encrypt the Web by configuring and using HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) on your WordPress site. When you make the switch to HTTPS, you’ll no longer be sending your username and password in the clear when you login to manage your site, and your users’ comments and form submissions will likewise be encrypted while in transmit between their computer and your site’s server.

Switching to HTTPS is one of the most important ways you can protect your WordPress site. Switching to HTTPS now will also ensure you’re prepared for the day when Google Chrome (and other browsers) begin marking non-HTTPS pages as “Insecure”, which is due to happen this September.

The process for configuring HTTPS varies by host, so as with the previous step, you’ll want to check your provider’s documentation.  You will need to obtain a secure certificate from a certificate authority to securely access your site in a browser without triggering a scary-looking warning.

Certificates can be obtained for free through Let’s Encrypt or for a fee from a number of traditional certificate authorities. Note that some hosts require you to buy a certificate through them in order to set up HTTPS on the server that serves your website.

After you’ve configured HTTPS, you’ll need to make changes to your site to enforce its use. First, modify your site’s wp-config.php file to require HTTPS for all administrative sessions by adding this constant:

// Require encryption for administrative sessions and logins
define('FORCE_SSL_ADMIN', true);

This is the recommended way to force HTTPS on your site’s backend because it doesn’t depend on a plugin being active.

Note that setting this constant does not require HTTPS on your site’s frontend… the public-facing part of your website.

To force HTTPS on the frontend, start by going to your site’s Settings (you’ll want the General screen) and changing the site and Home URLs to begin with https:// instead of http://. You will be immediately logged out once you save this change, and will have to login again.

You’ll then want to use a plugin like Velvet Blues Update URLs to replace all the hard-coded http:// URLs in your site with https:// URLs. If you don’t do this, some of your site’s resources, like images and scripts, may not load securely.

Always make a fresh backup of your site (repeating what you did in Step One) before you run a plugin like Update URLs.

The last step is to browse around your site and look for any mixed-content warnings. You may need to modify your theme files or theme settings to get rid of a final http:// reference or two.

Made it through all that? Good work!

Completing the steps above is the ticket to a safer, happier WordPress site. If you’d previously completed some of the steps, congratulations on completing the remaining ones. And if you’ve never done work to strengthen your site’s security posture before, but have been inspired to do so, I hope this post helped you take action.

Don’t let an injury to one become an injury to all: Strategies for safely managing multiple sites

If you’re adept at building websites, chances are excellent that you have more than one of them in your care, whether you own them yourself or whether you simply manage them on behalf of a friend or a business/nonprofit/community group that you have a relationship with.

Ensuring that all the sites you’re responsible for are well maintained is no easy task, especially when it’s a large number.

But it’s really important, because maintenance and administration go hand in hand with security. A neglected site can become a serious liability — and not just to the entity that it’s associated with. Since a hosting account is only as strong as its weakest link, it’s very important to ensure that no site gets left behind when it comes to regular maintenance and administration.

Here are three strategies you can use to minimize your risk of an injury to one site becoming an injury to all sites in your hosting account.

Strategy #1: Isolate your sites from each other

The first strategy you should consider to protect multiple sites that are sharing a hosting account is to isolate them from each other to the fullest extent possible. This way, if one site gets infected, the ability for the infection to spread is minimized. This strategy only works for sites that reside at different domains or subdomains (for example, mysite.tld and subsite.mysite.tld, or mybusiness.tld and hobbysite.tld).

You need to do several things to effectively wall off sites from one another:

  • Use unique, strong passwords for each site’s WordPress accounts
  • Associate each site with its own unique database and database user
  • Run each site under a separate shell or FTP/SFTP user (be aware that some hosts will not allow this) 
  • Make sure your shell/FTP/SFTP users do not have access to each others’ files (check with your host to ensure this is the case)

Again, to properly compartmentalize your sites, make sure you do all of the above. If you’ve got sites that “live together” in your hosting account and are not compartmentalized, they will all need to be cleaned in the event that one of them gets hacked.

Strategy #2: Use a manager to collectively administer your WordPress sites

If you are responsible for more than one WordPress site, you can greatly simplify your administrative workload by using a site manager to keep an eye on all of your sites at once.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of a site manager is that it will allow you to install updates in tandem without having to log in to each and every site you’re responsible for separately.

For example, suppose the WordPress development team releases a new version of Akismet, the spam catching plugin that ships with WordPress, as they did a few weeks ago. With a site manager, you can install that update across all the sites you have with just a couple of clicks, saving a lot of time and ensuring that no site gets left behind.

Connecting your sites to a site manager is as simple as installing a plugin and completing the pairing process by providing the site URL and a key to the manager.

When it comes to site managers, you’ve got choices. Two of the most popular managers currently available are InfiniteWP and MainWP. Both of these managers integrate with security plugins. And both can be installed in your existing hosting account at no cost to you. (Like your client sites, run your manager under a separate shell/FTP/SFTP user as described above.)

Do note, though, that many advanced capabilities you may want, like scheduled backups or security plugin integration, will require the purchase of an add-on.

Since your manager will be connected to all of your sites, you’ll want to log in often to ensure the manager itself is up to date, and protect it with a strong password. It’s also best to run all of your sites — your manager included — over HTTPS only.

Strategy #3: Convert dormant WordPress sites to static sites

If you’ve got a WordPress site in your hosting account that is no longer being updated with new content, but that you don’t want to take offline, consider giving it a proper retirement by converting it to a static site.

It’ll load faster, and there will be one fewer application in your web hosting account that you need to worry about updating and securing. This is a great alternative to deleting a site altogether and having the content disappear from the Web.

To convert your site, you can use the Simply Static plugin. It will generate a snapshot of everything you’ve got — posts, pages, images, scripts, and all — preserving your permalink structure in the process. Pretty cool!

Once your archive has been successfully created by Simply Static, move it out of your web root. Then, take the WordPress site offline by making a backup of the site and deleting the filesystem.

Keep in mind that depending on the size of your website, the archive could take a while to build, and be quite large.

Unpack the archive file you created in place of the filesystem you deleted, and verify that your posts and pages are still accessible at the URLs they had when the site was a WordPress site.

Note that when you retire a WordPress site by converting it using the process described above, comment threads, forms, and other interactive functionality will no longer work. You may wish to edit your now-static contact page and other pages where forms were present to remove them and make it clear to site visitors that they are viewing an archived site which isn’t accepting new form submissions. You can always put in a link to a currently-maintained site where they can reach out to you.

Part of staying secure involves recognizing and rejecting bad advice

A couple of days ago, I came across a blog post by former Mozilla developer Robert O’Callahan that harshly criticized makers of antivirus software. “[I]t’s safe for me to say: antivirus software vendors are terrible; don’t buy antivirus software, and uininstall [sic] it if you already have it (except, on Windows, for Microsoft’s),” O’Callahan declared in his opening paragraph, going on to contend that many Internet security and antivirus suites don’t add value, are not themselves kept updated, and prevent the browsers and operating systems they’re supposed to protect from running smoothly.

By the time I got to the end of O’Callahan’s first paragraph, I was appalled. Urging people to avoid using or installing Internet security and antivirus solution is terrible advice. Left undefended, a typical Windows or Mac installation is susceptible to all kinds of threats, including viruses and ransomware. I make a point of telling my clients that having a best-in-class Internet security suite installed is one of the most important ways they can mitigate their risk.

Notice I said “best-in-class”. Contrary to what O’Callahan says in his post, not all antivirus and security products are created equal. Much of what’s available for sale or download would not earn my recommendation.

I advise clients that it’s not enough to just have any old Internet security product installed; it should be an application that independent testing has shown can actually offer a user valuable protection.

The two firms whose software has generally performed best in the the independent tests I’ve seen are Kaspersky and Bitdefender. I prefer Kaspersky’s Internet Security suite, and am a paying subscriber.

Kaspersky nowadays sells multi-computer subscriptions as part of a package deal for a reasonable price, which means you can get all your family’s computers protected by buying just one plan. Their suite includes a robust firewall and antivirus engine, plus some other extremely useful tools, including Safe Money, which can stop you from falling victim to phishing attacks.

The latest version of Kaspersky Internet Security for Windows has a killer feature that I absolutely love: it scans my Windows operating systems for outdated plugins and third-party applications and offers to update any it finds without my having to do anything.

I keep a lot of what I have installed updated with Ninite, but Ninite won’t update *all* the non-Microsoft software on my computer. Kaspersky is now flagging updates I can’t install through Ninite and allowing me to install them with a couple mouse clicks. I love that.

Kaspersky Internet Security is well-behaved and generally does not get in the way of my other applications. I do not use the Kaspersky add-on for Firefox because I already have NoScript, CookieSafe, RequestPolicy, Privacy Badger, uBlock Origin, HTTPS Everywhere installed. These add-ons collectively serve as my browser armor and help protect me as I surf on a daily basis. But I consider Kaspersky Internet Security essential, too.

In my own testing, the scanner and antivirus engine have done very well. If I mount a volume with malware specimens on a virtual machine Kaspersky is installed on, it will quickly notice the specimens and warn me that it’s found malicious objects that should be quarantined or deleted.

Kaspersky’s Alexey Malanov saw O’Callahan’s post too, and took issue with it here. His criticisms of O’Callahan’s criticisms are spot on, and worth reading.

“In 2016, Kaspersky Lab solutions repelled 758,044,650 attacks launched from online resources located all over the world,” Malanov notes. “Web antivirus components recognized 261,774,932 unique URLs as malicious and detected 69,277,289 unique malicious objects (scripts, exploits, executables, etc.). Encryptors targeted 1,445,434 computers of unique users. Kaspersky Lab solutions blocked attempts to launch malware capable of stealing money via online banking on 2,871,965 devices.”

O’Callahan’s post includes a number of sweeping generalizations that are not backed up with any evidence, like this one:

AV products poison the software ecosystem because their invasive and poorly-implemented code makes it difficult for browser vendors and other developers to improve their own security.

Towards the end of his rant, O’Callahan does link to a 2012 post by Nicholas Nethercote criticizing McAfee (now owned by Intel) for getting in the way of Firefox. But he never calls out McAfee specifically in his own post.

I am not a McAfee fan either, and would not suggest anyone use their products. Fortunately, there are superior offerings available from firms like Kaspersky and Bitdefender that have earned “Outstanding” ratings in independent tests due to their effectiveness in thwarting threats.

If you’re not happy with your current Internet security suite, you should look into getting a better one as opposed to going unprotected, as O’Callahan unwisely recommends. Merely installing updates from Microsoft and Apple as soon as they’re available won’t protect you from ransomware, viruses, or phishing attacks. But a best-in-class Internet security suite can. Be sure that you have one installed on your computers and those of your loved ones.

One-on-one with Frank Abagnale, Jr. on identity theft, combating fraud, and staying safe online

Yesterday, I joined several hundred seniors at Microsoft for a captivating presentation by legendary security consultant Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose story was the basis for the hit movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio. After the presentation, Frank generously made time to sit down with me for a one-on-one conversation about identity theft, combating fraud, and staying safe online. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: I really enjoyed your presentation.


ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Can you talk a little bit about medical identity theft? What are some of the trends we’re seeing that are really disruptive and harmful?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Medical identity theft is kind of a new trend we’re seeing, where people would actually go into a clinic or a hospital because they need medical treatment, but they have no insurance. So in doing so (filling out the application), they list my name, my Social Security number, my date of birth, my personal information, and basically end up having the service done, but my insurance company being billed (or me directly being billed) and I end up getting a bill saying that I had this treatment at this clinic.

What’s not easy to do is when you call and say That wasn’t me! I wasn’t in that clinic! You really almost have to prove that it wasn’t you.

We are protected under the Fair Credit Reporting Act for other types of identity, like your credit card and things like that. That does not cover medical identity theft, so some of these collection agencies do go after individuals, even though it wasn’t them that made that charge.

So we’re starting to see that trend now of people getting medical services using somebody else’s identity.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Is this an area where the law simply hasn’t caught up yet?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: They’re going to have to change the laws to take away the liability from the consumer, so the consumer’s not held liable for treatment that you got using my name. Right now, that doesn’t exist. So, I can’t even see my medical records because now you’re on my medical records, and the HIPAA laws don’t allow me to see them, because then I’d see your medical records and treatment. So that’s kind of ridiculous. So I think they’re going to have to change some federal laws to address this issue of medical identity theft, which will become more and more of a problem.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Now, you work with the FBI, and have for a long time. And a lot of laws that need updating are federal laws. But of course, we have the fifty states, and they’re often called the laboratory of democracy. Do you have any specific advice for state-level policymakers? What are things that they can do to protect citizens against these cybercrimes and identity theft problems?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: You know, I’ve worked with the FBI for four decades — for forty years — and I get to go out and speak. I spoke at the state attorneys general conference, both their summer workshops and their winter workshops. I had all fifty state attorneys general in front of me. I work directly with the U.S. Attorneys. I teach at the Academy, where we teach U.S. Attorneys. What I try to do is to correct things that are very obvious. Like taking Social Security numbers off of 1040s. Making a Selective Service card be put in an envelope, so people can’t read what you put on there — your Social Security number, your date of birth. Removing the Social Security number from a Medicare card. Changing it off the military ID card.

I’m a strong believer that the government needs to lead. Whether it’s federal, state, county, or city. The government should be saying, this is the proper way you handle this, and this is the proper way you implement this. Instead, the government is way behind. It’s American corporations and businesses who say, Well, this is a problem. We need to come up with a solution and fix it. It’s ridiculous that the government should be behind.

And the government fails to do a lot of things. It ends up it’s the taxpayer who loses, whether it be their identity, or they’re actually losing the taxpayers’ money through fraudulent activity that doesn’t really need to occur.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Here in Washington — and also in Oregon, which is our neighbor — we do a lot of vote-by-mail. In fact, we’re almost exclusively vote by mail, and when people take their ballots to the post office, they’re supposed to sign the outside envelope. Their name is already on there, because it’s been printed; there’s a barcode, there’s their address. They’re supposed to sign to show that it’s them, and that signature has to match what’s on file with the elections officials. And that’s just going into the mailstream with their signature and their name on the outside of an envelope. Is that an insecure practice?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yes. And see, that’s ridiculous. But even better than that is: I’m on Medicare, because I’m sixty-seven years old, but I don’t collect Social Security. So for that reason, they can’t take my Medicare payment — which is about four hundred dollars a month — out of my Social Security check. So they have to send me a bill every month.

And I have to pay it. When they send me the bill, CMS — Medicare — tells me, Put your Social Security number on the check stub under Memo.

I said, You’re out of your mind. Now, you’re asking me to write a check, and have all that information that’s on the check, and then give you my Social Security number on top of that, and put it on there? So if someone sees it, they don’t have to do anything. They just have to see it, and they have all the information about me.

So those are the kind of things that I mean are more common sense things that you could go in and easily fix, and they’re not doing. And even when you bring it to their attention, and say this is absurd, because this is what somebody could do with that, they don’t go in and fix it.

So it’s just ridiculous.

And I have to tell you — and I will email you this piece because it’s hard to believe — but a couple years ago, a woman in the State of [Oregon] applied for a state income tax [refund] and claimed that she earned $3.5 million, and that the state owed her $2.1 million. And the state actually sent her a refund on a card — on a debit card — for $2.1 million. The woman was using the card for several months, but she lost the card.

So then she called the state tax revenue office in [Oregon] and said, I lost my card, I need a new card. And when they [finally] did [look], auditors saw it and said, Whoa, how could this be this big a refund? And that’s how they caught her. And I had that case. Just absurd.

And those are the kind of things that go on all the day.

We arrested a doctor in Michigan who was a cancer doctor. He treated four hundred and thirty-eight patients who came to see him. Every patient, he told them they had cancer. They didn’t have cancer. He treated them with chemo and billed Medicare thirty-three million dollars. We finally caught him; a judge gave him forty-five years, just two months ago, in prison. These are the kind of things that go on all the time. Millions and billions of dollars. But again, there should be a mechanism in place to catch these things.

So when we talk about food stamps, which is done on a card, we look at a delicatessen in Brooklyn that two years ago, is taking two hundred thousand dollars in food stamps. Now it’s taking two million.

So then, when you go down there, it’s a twelve hundred square foot store. So what they’re doing is when you come in with your card, they say, How much you have on that card? Two hundred dollars? I’ll give you a hundred dollars cash for the card, and then I’ll let you buy the other hundred in whiskey and wine — which they’re not allowed to use — on the other part of the card.

These people are driving Rolls-Royces when we go arrest them. They’re driving Ferraris. They have two condominiums. But you wanted to say to the people administering the program, Didn’t it look a little suspicious that the guy went from $200,000 to two million? What is it? He’s got people lined around his building waiting to come in with their card?

I mean, it’s such obvious stuff that it’s absurd that it goes on.

So, how can you blame the criminal for taking advantage of it? And he realizes the government has all the money and the government’s easiest person to rob, whether it be state or federal, because they’re doing the least things to prevent it.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, in other words, people go after the government, ’cause that’s where the money is.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: The easy target. You know, the old Willie Sutton: Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Why do you rob the government? Because that’s where the money is.

Plus, it’s easier than to try to rob a bank.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, is the problem with people missing these obvious red flags that there isn’t enough accountability, or is it just that because public servants who work on the taxpayer’s dime are basically doing their jobs, but they’re they’re not costing a company money. It’s not that there’s profits at risk, but it’s the entire public at risk. Is that sort of like a socialization of risk that’s happening? Is that the problem?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, and you know, I hate to have to say that, because of my association to the government, but that’s how it is.

One, it’s not their money. Two, nobody wants to take responsibility. No one really wants to do a whole lot about it, you know, whereas in a private company, you have people to answer to. There’s stockholders, or shareholders; there’s people that expect a profit.

In the government, there’s really nobody answering to anybody, so nobody’s really doing anything about it. And then, we impose some things, too, that make it difficult. In defense of the IRS, for example… they process a hundred and fifty-three million returns during the month of April.

Now, years ago, when you filed a paper return, and you said to the government, You owe me $2,100 back as a refund, they had eight weeks, ten weeks, to get you that refund. So during that time, they checked your W-2, they checked it across the state’s wage-earning files and so on, and they investigated your return. Now, the government says, you’re paying electronically, and you file electronically, [so] they tell the IRS, you need to pay these people within fifteen days.

Well, the IRS [worker] says, I can’t… I can’t look at, I can’t check all these things in fifteen days. I have millions and millions of returns.

So, again, Congress is mandating something they can’t physically do, and in the end, the criminal’s taking advantage of Congress doing that. Where, if you ask most Americans, Would you mind waiting a few more weeks for your return if you knew it was going to save the taxpayers billions of dollars from criminals getting the taxpayers’ money? They’d say, yes, but they don’t.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: And that’s the kind and sort of question that has like a no-brainer answer, right?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Right. Exactly.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So, you know, you ask those questions, people will say yes, I’d like to be more secure. In fact, people are always talking about the liberty and privacy versus security trade-off. And people say they value security, but it seems like we’re less secure with everything moving online, but we don’t have a long-term plan for securing that data that we’re moving online.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: No, and we, as ourselves, give away so much information, you know. We get on and tell our mother’s maiden names, our pet’s names, where we went on vacation, where we’re going on vacation. You know, what kind of car we drive, what places we like to go eat. And there are people who take that information, because they can build profiles. There’s so much they can do with it.

But the thing is, you can’t con a con man, and that’s because the con man is already thinking with a deceptive mind, and he already sees your scam coming at ’em. Most Americans are honest, and because they’re honest, they don’t have a deceptive mind. They’re not sitting there thinking about, well, what would someone do with that piece of information? What could they do with that? That’s why it’s so important to educate people, to give them the proper tools.

So, when I go out and speak at a lot of universities, I’m really surprised by the kids’ questions, because it’s more about their personal security than it is about How’d you like Leonardo DiCaprio playing you in the movie? It’s more about, how do I use Facebook safely? What is it okay to do online, and not okay to do? And so, you know, they’re concerned. But they want to know how: Where’s the information?

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: One of the things that has really bothered me over the years is I’ll get some sort of form or application that’ll ask me for my Social Security number. I’ve never felt comfortable giving that out. I don’t like giving it out, but they say they have to have it… and a lot of these companies collecting this information say they really need it. Is there any way for consumers and customers to stand up and say, no we don’t want to give you a Social Security number?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: No, they don’t need it, because federal law says… on your hand, you can count how many times you’re required to provide your Social Security number by law. And that, you know, [includes] things [like] when you apply for credit, when you apply [for a job], your employer has the right to have your Social Security number for collecting taxes. The IRS… law enforcement can ask you for your Social Security number.

But when you go to the doctor’s office, the doctor really doesn’t need to have your Social Security number. The problem is, if you say to the doctor, I’m not giving it to you; I’m not giving you my Social Security number, the doctor’s going to go through your insurance company and ultimately get it from your insurance company, who does have your Social Security number.

So they find a way to get it anyway. But most of the time, you shouldn’t be offering to give it to people, and if somebody gets it, and you see really no reason for them to have it, then you should just tell them no. And a lot of times if you just stand firm, so no I’m not giving it to you, they’ll go around and do whatever they’re supposed to do anyway.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Right. If you’re filling out one of those forms that, let’s say, an independent contractor and so forth fills out… would you recommend that people get an EIN that’s separate from their SSN?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yes, absolutely. I always use a federal tax ID number, even when I was just me, and I was self-employed. I wasn’t going to go around giving everybody my Social Security number. So I have to have that if I’m going to pay you and send you a 1099 [and the other party says] I need your Social Security number. I just gave him a federal tax ID number, and that’s what you should do. If I was that independent contractor, that plumber, that business, I would never be giving them a DBA [doing business as]. I would never be giving them my Social Security number. I would just be giving a federal tax ID number.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: And people can easily get those.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, it’s not difficult. You just apply for it, and they give you a number, and that’s the end of it. Yeah, it’s not difficult to do.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: President Obama recently announced he was creating a U.S. Digital service to try to get some of the really talented folks who have maybe been working in the private sector to lend their energy, their talents, and their expertise of the public sector. Is that something we need to do to better combat identity theft and improve cybersecurity?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Yeah, because I don’t think we have the people, the manpower, or the brain power in Washington, D.C. to do that. I think this is where you need to go out and get outside help, because a lot of those people don’t have the knowledge or the experience or the background or the training to deal with a lot of those problems. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the government going outside the government and getting the people that know how to fix these problems and get them to come in… and at least ask advice on how to go about fixing these problems.

The only thing I would say: If these people come in, and they give you good advice, and you know it’s good advice, then implement it! Don’t just listen to them and then walk away and [go back to] business as usual. Otherwise, you’re wasting more money.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: One last question. A lot of people I know are people who make lots of active use of social media. They’re on social media all the time: Twitter, Facebook. What are two or three common best practices you recommend to strengthen people’s social identity?

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: It’s real simple. One: Don’t put a straightforward photograph of yourself on Facebook. [Two]: Don’t state where you were born on Facebook, or your date of birth. [Three]: Don’t make statements that you don’t want someone to read that you said.

So, if you’re an eighteen-year-old and you make racial slurs, someone’s going to read those racial slurs five years from now when they go to give you a job, and that could hinder you getting that job. Or putting a picture of you that was a picture of you nude on a beach with a bunch of drug paraphernalia all over your body, knowing that some employer down the road may look at that, and that’s going to be held against you.

So just be [aware]. Realize that everything you write, someone’s going to read besides the people you want to read it, and that it’s all retrievable. So you’ve just got to be careful, again, not to be giving away things. Stop and think: Do I really want to put that out on social media where someone may see that, later on, down the road, four or five years from now.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Right. So you have to think long-term.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Long term. Absolutely.

ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Thank you very much.

FRANK ABAGNALE, JR.: Thank you, Andrew. It was a pleasure.