There are several broad categories of digital threats that everyone should know a little about.
This will help you understand how to protect yourself in the digital world.
Attacks On Our Online Services
Did you get alarmed when you couldn’t access Facebook or TikTok in 2021? Nope, me neither. But these services experienced an outage on one day of that year.
This loss of service seems to have been an internal systems issue as opposed to a destructive attack from an outside body.
However, destructive attacks happen every year that target major consumer websites.
Distributed denial-of-service (DDOS attacks)
These are called distributed denial-of-service attacks.
The goal is to flood a website with so much traffic that it slows down so much that it is unusable by normal customers like you.
Webmasters can cut off traffic from a source when they see a problem. But these denial-of-service attacks are organized.
They may come from tens of thousands of sources in different regions of the world. This is why they are called “distributed”.
Lengthy history (in internet terms)
Destructive attacks are nothing new. To illustrate this fact, let’s go back to the dawn of the 21st century.
The year 2000 included attacks on Amazon.com, Buy.com, CNN, eBay, E*Trade, and Yahoo – just to name a few of the big commercial names at the time (not all of these exist in the same form now).
Denial of service attacks predate the internet
It’s a mistake to think that denial of service attacks are an internet phenomenon. Here’s an example that uses the older communication medium: the telephone.
Younger readers may not remember Jeremy Falwell. He was a big-time televangelist who made big money by exhorting his followers to ring up a toll-free number and transfer their money to his charities.
Back in the mid-1980s, a youngster programmed his home computer (an Atari, if you remember those) to dial the number repeatedly.
Of course, this jammed up the number for other people who wanted to give their money to Falwell. That’s a denial-of-service right there.
But that wasn’t the only impact on Falwell. He had set up the toll-free number, so he was on the hook (so to speak) for the incoming calls. That little Atari computer ran up a bill on Falwell’s tab for about half a million dollars!
At this point, the regional telephone company (Southern Bell) stepped in and stopped the calls.
It’s much easier to assume someone’s identity than to go to all the trouble of stealing from them. Simply become that person and you can apply for credit cards, pay for luxury items, and sail off to some hard-to-find place.
In 2020, about 1.4 million cases of identity theft were reported to the Federal Trade Commission. This was a whopping increase of 113% from the previous year.
About 33% of the reported cases involved criminals using identity theft to steal government benefits. The reason for the big increase in cases seems to be that criminals targeted the federal stimulus cheques sent to citizens to cover loss of earnings due to the global pandemic.
By the way, identity theft is no means an American phenomenon. It is also prevalent in other western countries.
Social security numbers have been used for the purpose of identity theft since the system was created. We have several articles on SSNS:
- A history of SSN
- Why SSN numbers will run out
Have you ever mistyped your favorite website name and pulled up a casino page? This is a form of brand jacking (hijacking of brands).
Entire companies exist to create domain names with a single character that differs from the names of major brands.
Diverting traffic like this predates the internet. Let’s go back to the 19th century, 1887 to be exact.
The telephone had been invented over a decade before, in 1876. When people picked up their phones, they were connected to a telephone operator. The operator would ask for a name or number and route the call.
Almon Strowger was an undertaker plying his trade in Kansas. He became convinced that other undertakers were stealing his business. How could they do that?
He believed that they were bribing telephone operators to connect to his rivals when customers asked to speak to the Stryger company.
If you’re an older reader, you’ll remember the old dial phones. Here’s a photo for younger readers.
By the way, those aren’t push buttons. We old folk would stick a finger into the numbered hole and rotate or “dial” it around to the sticking point. Crazy, I know!
Online scams targetting consumers in the United States are tracked by several organizations, including the National Consumers League.
They rank the most prevalent scams conducted on the internet. Here are the top three, in no particular order:
- Fraudulent sales of products or services on marketplaces like eBay
- MLM (multi-level marketing) and other pyramid schemes
- Get-rich-quick marketing of business opportunities (that never make a profit)
We’ve written extensively on how to protect yourself on online marketplaces in these articles:
- Protect yourself from the Item Not Received scam on eBay
- Seller protection with signature confirmation
- How to spot fake PayPal notifications of sales
Whitfield Diffie is the inventor of public-key cryptography. In 1993, he addressed Congress on the impact of encryption on privacy.
He pointed out that there was very little privacy protection for American citizens. This is one quote from his address:
No right of private conversation was enumerated in the Constitution. I suppose it never occurred to anyone at the time that it could be prevented.Diffie’s address to Congress
We’ve written elsewhere about the Scarecrow Bandits, a criminal band of bank robbers. The FBI caught up with them in 1998 using some of the first examples of triangulating peoples’ movements by using their own phones.
As private citizens, we have now become used to surveillance intruding into our lives.
Take customer service as an example. The last time you phoned your bank to query a transaction, you probably had to listen to a message telling you that the call was being recorded. We don’t bat an eyelid anymore.
Large parking lots record our license plates as we drive in. Sometimes we’re grateful when we have to go to the service desk and shamefacedly admit that we can’t find our car!
But this doesn’t mean that it’s not important to track the little erosions of privacy year by year. Thankfully, there are civil liberties organizations that keep a concerned eye on the increasing expansion of surveillance in modern times.
Fraudulent Transactions On The Internet
Fraudulent attempts to make money have been around forever.
In ancient eras, shopkeepers rigged the scales when weighing their products. Gangs scraped and shaved gold off the edges of coins.
The same tactics are used to target modern financial transactions.
I won’t dwell on these attacks in this article as they are worthy of a dedicated article to themselves.