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Physical threats to digital safety and how to avoid them

By Dean Chester on 17 Dec, 2019

We all understand how important digital safety is today. There are many things that endanger us online: scams and malware, phishing and extortion, grooming and hate content.

All these threats have sadly become part and parcel of our online presence to the point where we have to make sure our children know at least the basics of internet security so that they do not get into trouble.

However, not all dangers to our digital well-being come from the digital world. There are physical threats that also put it at risk and we have to be aware of them as well.

ATM overtaking

It is not only through an unsecured Wi-Fi connection that you may get your credit card data stolen. There are also a lot of ways in which an ATM can be compromDeanised: with the help of skimmers, PIN pad overlays, etc. What all these techniques have in common is that they allow criminals to overtake a legitimate ATM and gain access to its customers’ data which can then be used for nefarious purposes.

Skimmers are devices that are put over the card slot on the ATM. Then, when a person inserts their card, the skimmer reads its data and sends it to the criminal. The danger of such devices is that they are extremely difficult to spot, especially if an ATM user does not expect a scam.

Now that the scammers have the card data, all they need to clone it and gain access to the victim’s bank account is the PIN code of that card. For that purpose, they usually install a hidden camera somewhere at the ATM that records the victims entering their codes.

Alternatively, thieves can use an overlay for the PIN entry pad. Just like skimmers do, these fake pads send the customers’ PIN codes to the perpetrators.

Whenever you use an ATM, you should take some time to double-check if there is anything suspicious about it. While hard to spot, skimmers and fake pads can be noticed if you pay attention. If you think either looks too big or weird in any other way, call the bank immediately and do not use the ATM.

It is generally a good idea to cover the PIN pad with your other hand when you are entering your PIN in case there is a hidden camera watching you.

Device theft

Physically stealing someone’s device can be very beneficial for criminals not only because of the money they can make by selling the gadget itself but also because of all the information being stored on it. Many people do not take the necessary precautions in protecting their devices from unauthorized access.

However, having your device stolen or lost is a very real possibility, especially when you are traveling abroad and visiting popular tourist attractions because they tend to draw in a lot of visitors and make it easier for thieves to vanish in the crowd.

Other schemes thieves may implement is using one person to distract the victim with a conversation while others steal the device.

Besides keeping your gadgets where thieves cannot easily reach them (such as your inside pockets), you should also make sure that the data stored on them is protected from unauthorized access.

This is why your laptops, smartphones, and tablets should all be locked with passwords. Then, even if a theft occurs, criminals will not be able to access your accounts and other personal information. Additionally, if you fell victim to a theft, you should immediately contact the local police because the more time passes after your device is stolen, the more opportunities the thieves have to get away and crack your password.

Voice assistant hijacking

Voice assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant have never been very safe to use. If earlier, however, their vulnerabilities could mostly be exploited with the aid of digital means, now there is a physical threat to their owners as well.

Recently, it became known that light commands that can be performed with a simple laser pointer are recognized by voice assistants. There is no real difference between a laser command and a voice command to a MEMS microphone the assistants use.

As long as a criminal has a direct line of sight on the microphone and even a low-powered laser pointer, they may inject commands into the assistant, thereby gaining access to their victim’s smart home, accounts, and other sensitive data. Some virtual assistants can be hijacked this way from as far as 110 meters (361 feet).

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to prevent it if you have a voice assistant. Removing the microphone away from windows so that it cannot be seen from the outside may help but it still would be prudent to beware other insecurities that are yet to be found in voice assistants and avoid using them, if possible.

Snooping strangers

Everyone has to invite people they don’t know well into their houses sometimes, whether it be a plumber, electrician, or a delivery person. In some cases such as burglary, an outsider can even invite themselves in without permission.

Most of us have better things to do than to breathe down the professional’s neck checking if they stay where they should and don’t snoop around. That would be quite preposterous and even insulting to honest people who the guys you called in most likely are.

However, you can never be sure if this person you see for the first time in your life can be trusted and if a thief gets in, they obviously can’t.

It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when choosing how to store your sensitive information even in the safety of your own house. Your credit card PIN? Make sure the paper it’s written down on is hidden in a locked compartment. Your bank statements, receipts, passwords from your bank? Ditto.

Some criminals are not above going through your garbage in a search for personal information. While this is an unlikely scenario, if you become a target of a scam, it may happen. So make sure everything containing important information about you and your financial operations (old bank cards, aforementioned bank statements, etc.) is shredded before you dump it.

It’s advisable to dispose even of such shredded remains with the help of locked business data destruction service bins your office may have. Otherwise, you may want to divide the shreds into several piles and throw them out to different garbage bins across the city.

One more physical danger to your personal information comes from postboxes. Most people change the locks on their doors when they move into a new house or apartment but it’s equally necessary to change the lock on your new postbox to prevent any threat.

You should do it even if the last owner is your best friend because his or her mailbox key could have been lost or duplicated in the past and a malefactor may have a copy of it now.

Dean Chester is CEO and Cyber Expert of CoolTechZone

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