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.

A year with Gutenberg: WordPress’ new editor has proved its worth

One year ago, WordPress 5.0 landed, and with it, a new default editing experience, made possible by the Gutenberg project.

The Gutenberg project originated as plugin backed by the core development team that aimed to offer a modern replacement post editor for the world’s most popular content management system.

Last year, Gutenberg was merged into core for the final WP release of 2018… a move that attracted significant opposition and criticism within the community of people that use and work with WordPress.

Anyone not wanting to switch to Gutenberg upon installing WordPress 5.0 was given the option of retaining the classic editor with a plugin appropriately named Classic Editor. And many people took advantage. The Classic Editor plugin has over five million installations, according to the statistics maintained by the WordPress.org plugin directory.

As a longtime WordPress beta tester, I had the opportunity to try out Gutenberg long before it was ever merged into core.

And while Gutenberg was certainly rather rough around the edges in its earliest incarnations, it has matured beautifully into a modern post editor that offers an empowering writing experience.

One year after its incorporation into core, my assessment of Gutenberg is overwhelmingly positive. It has proved its worth.

What makes Gutenberg superior to the Classic Editor?

Several things.

  • Gutenberg is clean. The editing interface is simple and elegant, encouraging distraction-free writing.
  • Gutenberg is logical. Content is organized into blocks, which can be paragraphs of text, images, videos, embeds, or anything else.
  • Gutenberg is fast. Really fast! It loads quickly and it publishes content faster than the classic editor. This could be my favorite attribute.
  • Gutenberg is always improving. The bugs and flaws that existed at the outset are gone, and the editor keeps getting better.

I especially love the pre-publish checks that Gutenberg runs. This functionality is not available with the Classic Editor except through a plugin.

I have used both Gutenberg and the Classic Editor on different sites since WordPress 5.0 was released. In each of the sites I’ve installed since last December, I’ve chosen to keep Gutenberg as the default editor, rather than installing the Classic Editor. And I haven’t regretted that choice.

Once you get used to Gutenberg, you start to appreciate what it can do for you. Gutenberg really is more intuitive than it might appear at first glance. If you’re used to the Classic Editor, then you probably have a sort of mental equivalent of muscle memory that may hinder your Gutenberg experience at first. But once you get past that and start mastering Gutenberg properly, you may well have different feelings about it.

In my view, the best way to get acclimated to Gutenberg is to set up a brand new WordPress website for fun or for testing purposes. Make a site that is dedicated to an activity or hobby that you enjoy.

For example: If you love cooking, then why not set up a WordPress site that hosts your favorite recipes and food preparation tips?

If you love knitting, why not create a blog or personal site about knitting?

If you enjoy reading, how about setting up a site where you can share your favorite books and news articles you’ve recently read?

What I’ve found is that getting to know Gutenberg on a brand new WordPress site is the best way to develop good feelings for it. A brand new post editor doesn’t feel out of place in a brand new website, you see.

There’s nothing wrong with continuing to use Classic Editor on your existing sites, especially if you use plugins that aren’t yet compatible with Gutenberg (although most major plugins in the WordPress ecosystem now get along just fine with Gutenberg). But if you have not tried Gutenberg at all, or have concluded it’s no good based on the many negative reviews that have been published about it, then you’re missing out.

My advice is to make up your own mind. Gutenberg has its legions of critics, that’s for sure, and many of the concerns they raised when the editor was in its intensive development phase were wholly justified.

But the Gutenberg of December 2019 is also much more polished than the Gutenberg of December 2018 or July 2018 or earlier. Don’t let the views of other people prevent you from trying Gutenberg for yourself and reaching your own conclusion based on your own experience.

I look forward to seeing Gutenberg reach higher heights in 2020.

This post was authored in Gutenberg, WordPress’ next-generation post editor, offering a smooth and pleasant writing experience. To take Gutenberg for a test drive yourself, simply install a new WordPress site and start drafting and publishing content. Once you’ve mastered it and decided it’s for you, you can deploy it on older WordPress sites by disabling the Classic Editor plugin.

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.

Intel discloses another major flaw in a significant number of its CPUs

A year and a half after the words “Meltdown” and “Spectre” entered the cybersecurity vernacular, chip maker Intel has disclosed another major vulnerability affecting a significant number of its CPUs. Here’s Wired:

Today Intel and a coordinated supergroup of microarchitecture security researchers are together announcing a new, serious form of hackable vulnerability in Intel’s chips. It’s four distinct attacks, in fact, though all of them use a similar technique, and all are capable of siphoning a stream of potentially sensitive data from a computer’s CPU to an attacker.

It’s become fashionable in cybersecurity circles for exploits and vulnerabilities to be given names (think Heartbleed and WannaCry). The attacks disclosed today by Intel have been given the names ZombieLoad, Fallout, and RIDL, or Rogue In-Flight Data Load by researchers.

Intel, meanwhile, came up with a much duller name to describe the vulnerability: Microarchitectural Data Sampling, or MDS, which would fit well into a paragraph loaded with other corporate mumbo-jumbo.

How do the attacks work? Here’s an explanation from the researchers:

The RIDL and Fallout speculative execution attacks allow attackers to leak confidential data across arbitrary security boundaries on a victim system, for instance compromising data held in the cloud or leaking your information to malicious websites. Our attacks leak data by exploiting the newly disclosed Microarchitectural Data Sampling (or MDS) side-channel vulnerabilities in Intel CPUs.

Unlike existing attacks, our attacks can leak arbitrary in-flight data from CPU-internal buffers (Line Fill Buffers, Load Ports, Store Buffers), including data never stored in CPU caches. We show that existing defenses against speculative execution attacks are inadequate, and in some cases actually make things worse. Attackers can use our attacks to obtain sensitive data despite mitigations, due to vulnerabilities deep inside Intel CPUs.

Intel’s newest CPUs don’t suffer from MDS vulnerabilities, but most Intel CPUs made since 2008 do. Chips made by ARM and AMD are not affected.

The researchers recommend disabling Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology to mitigate the vulnerabilities. However, hyper-threading is a crucial chip technology underpinning the use of virtual machines on systems in datacenters around the world. It can’t be disabled without a cost.

If you’re wondering whether a desktop or notebook computer you have is vulnerable, the researchers have provided a pair of software utilities for Windows and GNU/Linux machines which can tell you.

Intel has published a statement detailing its response here.

Apple has released an update to macOS Mojave to push microcode fixes to affected Macs. If you own a Mac, update to macOS Mojave 10.14.5 now.

Canonical has pushed microcode fixes to half a dozen versions of Ubuntu, including the two most recent Long Term Support releases.

And Microsoft has pushed microcode fixes for several flavors of Windows, including Windows 10 and Windows 7.

Microsoft also took the rare step today of releasing patches to several very old versions of Windows to patch a different critical vulnerability affecting remote desktop services. More information is available here.

Now is a very good time to install updates to your operating system!

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.

United States federal government bans use of Kaspersky software: What should firms and households do?

A leading maker of antivirus and internet security software has been blacklisted by the United States federal government over fears that it has ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. Here’s the first two paragraphs of The Washington Post’s story about the decision:

The U.S. government on Wednesday banned the use of a Russian brand of security software by federal agencies amid concerns the company has ties to state-sponsored cyberespionage activities, according to U.S. officials.

Acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke ordered that Kaspersky Lab software be barred from federal civilian government networks, giving agencies a timeline to get rid of it, according to several officials familiar with the plan who were not authorized to speak publicly about it. Duke ordered the scrub on the grounds that the company has connections to the Russian government and its software poses a security risk.

And here is a copy of the statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security regarding DHS Binding Operational Directive 17-01.

Kaspersky Lab (which has an American division headquartered in Woburn, Massachusetts) responded with this strongly-worded statement:

Given that Kaspersky Lab doesn’t have inappropriate ties with any government, the company is disappointed with the decision by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but also is grateful for the opportunity to provide additional information to the agency in order to confirm that these allegations are completely unfounded.

No credible evidence has been presented publicly by anyone or any organization as the accusations are based on false allegations and inaccurate assumptions, including claims about the impact of Russian regulations and policies on the company. Kaspersky Lab has always acknowledged that it provides appropriate products and services to governments around the world to protect those organizations from cyberthreats, but it does not have unethical ties or affiliations with any government, including Russia.

In addition, more than 85 percent of its revenue comes from outside of Russia, which further demonstrates that working inappropriately with any government would be detrimental to the company’s bottom line. These ongoing accusations also ignore the fact that Kaspersky Lab has a 20-year history in the IT security industry of always abiding by the highest ethical business practices and trustworthy technology development.

Regarding the Russian polices and laws being misinterpreted, the laws and tools in question are applicable to telecom companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and contrary to the inaccurate reports, Kaspersky Lab is not subject to these laws or other government tools, including Russia’s System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM), since the company doesn’t provide communication services.

Also, it’s important to note that the information received by the company, as well as traffic, is protected in accordance with legal requirements and stringent industry standards, including encryption, digital certificates and more.

Kaspersky Lab has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage or offensive cyber efforts, and it’s disconcerting that a private company can be considered guilty until proven innocent, due to geopolitical issues. The company looks forward to working with DHS, as Kaspersky Lab ardently believes a deeper examination of the company will substantiate that these allegations are without merit.

Kaspersky’s software has repeatedly come out ahead of the competition in tests performed by independent labs, which is a key reason why many cybersecurity professionals like it and recommend it.

But now the company is being blacklisted by the federal government and agencies are under orders to remove and uninstall any Kaspersky products they may have purchased licenses for. Best Buy has already severed ties. What about households and firms that use Kaspersky: what should they do?

My advice is, don’t panic. There is no need to purge Kaspersky from your systems if you use it. No evidence has been presented that Kaspersky’s software is malicious.

And it sounds like the government just doesn’t have any.

Rob Joyce, the White House cyber security coordinator, said Wednesday at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit that the Trump administration made a “risk-based decision” to order Kaspersky Lab’s products removed from federal agencies.

Asked by Reuters whether there was a smoking gun showing Kaspersky Lab had provided intelligence to the Russian government, Joyce replied: ”As we evaluated the technology, we decided it was a risk we couldn’t accept.”

Emphasis is mine.

Despite the issuance of this order, the Department of Homeland Security has said there will be “an opportunity for Kaspersky to submit a written response addressing the Department’s concerns or to mitigate those concerns”.

“The Department wants to ensure that the company has a full opportunity to inform the Acting Secretary of any evidence, materials, or data that may be relevant,” says the statement accompanying the order.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire advocated for today’s action by referencing briefings from the intelligence community.

At a public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, six top intelligence officials, including the heads of the F.B.I., C.I.A. and National Security Agency, were asked if they would be comfortable with Kaspersky Lab software on their agencies’ computers. Each answered with an unequivocal no. I cannot disclose the classified assessments that prompted the intelligence chiefs’ response. But it is unacceptable to ignore questions about Kaspersky Lab because the answers are shielded in classified materials.

When someone says they’ve got evidence to back up a course of action they want to take, but won’t show it to you, then you’re left with just their word.

That’s not good enough.

Shaheen goes on to say:

Fortunately, there is ample publicly available information to help Americans understand the reasons Congress has serious doubts about the company.

She then goes on to talk about how the company’s founder Eugene Kaspersky graduated from an elite cryptology institute (something that is public knowledge and which I’ve known since before I started using the company’s products), and news reports that discuss the possibility and probability that Kaspersky has been collaborating with Russian intelligence, such as this one from Bloomberg.

But even that Bloomberg article noted, “The U.S. government hasn’t identified any evidence connecting Kaspersky Lab to Russia’s spy agencies.”

(Kaspersky has responded both to Shaheen’s op-ed and also to the Bloomberg story).

Writing for Wired, in a piece published on Labor Day (Why the U.S. Government Shouldn’t Ban Kaspersky Security Software), Philip Chertoff noted that most of Kaspersky’s rivals in the cybersecurity industry are also foreign companies that may have ties to the intelligence agencies of their own home countries.

It is not unreasonable to think that Kaspersky Lab may have ties with Russian intelligence. The company employs former intelligence officers, and Russia’s relationship-based business climate means that it’s unlikely Kaspersky Lab could have succeeded without relationships with senior government officials.

However, it’s a charge that could be levied at many technology companies, especially cybersecurity firms. As the digital economy has grown, international intelligence agencies and technology firms have formed a sort of intelligence-industrial complex. After exiting US intelligence services, many former officers and cryptographers transition to jobs with big tech firms, hired for those skills they learned in the service or specifically for their strong personal relationships with government officials.

For instance, Bitdefender — which is currently trying to poach Kaspersky’s business with ads like these — is based in Romania. (Bitdefender is the other company that routinely gets the highest marks in independent third party testing of antivirus and security software).

If we can’t trust Kaspersky because they’re foreign, then arguably the same logic applies across the industry.

Kaspersky is a multinational company that has servers all over the world, in many countries, including the United States as well as Russia. Again, that’s no different than other cybersecurity companies.

It must be noted that there are a lot of American firms handing over precious trade secrets so they can do business in China, or complying with Chinese laws so they can gain access to the market there.

The New York Times recently published a story about this. Shouldn’t that behavior be equally concerning to us?

It is to me, at least. And these are American firms.

Senator Shaheen claims to have seen information which is prompting her to call for a ban of Kaspersky software — but says she can’t share this information. That’s of no help, then, because it means those of us who understand these issues can’t weigh the evidence for ourselves to reach our own conclusions.

The U.S. intelligence community is very secretive and agencies like the NSA have a history of having violated federal law and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution to spy on Americans.

The NSA has also reportedly spied on companies like Bitdefender and Kaspersky (surprise, surprise).

We have a growing body of evidence that Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation interfered in last year’s elections here in the United States. We are all right to be concerned about that. We do not have evidence that Kaspersky’s software is a danger to our national security.

The Internet may have begun as a U.S. defense research project, but it’s a global medium now. Combating bad actors requires global cooperation, because the bad guys can operate from anywhere with an Internet connection, as Eugene Kaspersky notes in a piece today at Forbes:

When did it become OK to declare a company is guilty without one shred of public evidence? In addition, while the U.S. has talented cybersecurity experts, smart people, who are dedicated to fighting cybercriminals, are born and educated all around the world. If the most sophisticated cyber threats are coming from countries outside of the U.S., don’t you think using cyberthreat data and technologies from experts located in those countries might be the most effective at protecting your valuable data, especially given that they are fighting against those local threat actors every day?

It is time to separate geopolitics from cybersecurity. We need to work together globally. Kaspersky Lab has good relationships and regularly helps law enforcement agencies all over the world fight cybercrime, and we hope the U.S. will also consider learning more about us, and who we truly are, versus the rhetoric and false assumptions. We’re ready to demonstrate that we have nothing to hide, and that we only want to help defeat cybercriminals and prevent cyberattacks.

With that said, I previously offered to meet with Senators, Representatives, Committees, and federal agencies, publicly or privately, to answer any questions regarding my company or me. The offer still stands.

If those of us using Kaspersky were to ditch it, and wanted to replace it with something comparable, we’d probably go with Bitdefender, which (as mentioned) is the other company that scores the best in independent testing for antivirus effectiveness. Again, as mentioned, Bitdefender is Romanian. So we’d still be in a relationship with a foreign company and our computers would still potentially be transmitting data to servers outside of the United States, including servers based in eastern Europe.

One final point: Kaspersky’s software may be proprietary (closed source), but so are the operating systems distributed by Microsoft and Apple — which most people use for their desktop computing. Microsoft happens to be one of Kaspersky’s partners; they make use of the Kaspersky Antivirus SDK.

Seattle-based Amazon is also a Kaspersky partner.

When any of us uses proprietary software, we’re making a decision to trust the company we’re getting it from, because the source code cannot be audited by anybody in the same way that free software can be.

At this juncture, I have no reason to believe Kaspersky’s software is risky, malicious, or a threat to national security. I will therefore continue to use it to protect the proprietary systems that I run.

I actually prefer to do the majority of my computing with free software, notably the GNU toolchain, Linux kernel, KDE applications, and WordPress, all of which are distributed under licenses that allow anyone to see the source code, distribute it, and modify it.