Checklist for back-to-school device security

Here in the Cyber Savvy household, we are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the first day of school. Only a few weeks away, the Cyber Savvy kids are looking forward to meeting their new teachers, reuniting with old friends and, of course, loading up on all that back-to-school gear we buy each year.

As students get older, school supplies often mean devices; laptops, tablets and other technology.  The team at Malwarebytes have put together this checklist of tips to help you keep your crew safe as they return to school this season.

  • Watch out for too-good-to-be-true software and device sales. Is that Facebook ad really promising a brand-new Mac laptop for $200 if you just click here and fill out your personal info? Think hard before you jump on a back-to-school online ad that seems fiendishly cheap. It could be adware, it could be a scam, or it could lead you to a malicious page that will later infect your own computer.
  • Ensure that they have security software and tools installed on their new device. Antivirus with anti-phishing features, firewalls, script blockers, ad blockers, password managers, anti-theft apps, anti-malware and ransomware—you name it. Cyberattacks can come from all sides these days, so it pays to have at least one of each of these software programs and/or extensions installed on their computer, phone, or tablet. And if you think your child’s Mac is bulletproof from these attacks, think again.
  • Stress the importance of physical security, too. Physically securing devices is just as important as securing the data inside of them. We’re not just talking about using a padded bag for laptops, or shock-absorbent cases and shatterproof screen covers for phones and tablets. We’re talking about locking cables and USB port blockers, actual things that thwart theft and unauthorized access, respectively, while they’re in school.
  • Instill in them the habit of locking computers when they have to move away from them for a while. Locking screens is another way to prevent others from, say, flipping your child’s screen upside down, snooping around, and looking at files they shouldn’t be looking at. Beware the “hacked” social media posts that reveal false, embarrassing information about their users!
  • Disable the autorun functionality of their OS. As you may know, malware can be stored in and transported via USB sticks. If your child’s computer automatically runs what’s inside it once slotted into the machine’s port, then this is a real problem. Thankfully, there are a number of ways one can disable autorun. For Windows users, Microsoft has dedicated a page just for that.
  • Introduce them to multi-factor authentication (MFA). The most common and widely used MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA). In order for them to know and understand what it is, you might show them how it works using your own phone and computer. That way, if they are asked to sign up for online programs that store their data at school, they can raise their hand and ask if the program has MFA. By educating your child on this security procedure, he or she can educate the school in turn.
  • Discourage rooting/jailbreaking. If your child is old enough to figure out how to root or jailbreak a device, chances are they’ll probably be tempted to do this. Jailbreaking opens devices to custom modifications and the unrestricted download and use of apps from third-party sources. These can be quite handy if your child wants one that cannot be found in the official app store. However, jailbreaking and rooting increases the success rate of a hacking attempt, as these overwrite the device’s inherent security settings, making devices more vulnerable and susceptible to threats.
  • Update game console firmware. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Isn’t your little gamer glad that back-to-school gadgets are not limited to calculators, headphones, and keyboards? Gaming consoles are becoming more like computers as they evolve. Although it’s rare for them to catch malware (at least for the time being), there are still ways hackers can circumvent their security to perform other malicious acts, such as gaining access to gaming accounts. So for now, update the gaming console’s firmware—and do this on a regular basis—before handing it to your child.

Find more back-to-school tips from Malwarebytes in their blog post on the topic.

New Snapchat feature shares user location. Is that OK for privacy and security?

Snapchat has a new feature that allows users to see where their friends are posting from. But this new location sharing feature has some concerned about privacy, and broader implications like stalking and bullying.  The good news is you can disable it. Check out these stories for more information on how to do that:

Geek out with your kids

Boston, MA- June 15, 2017, Bos/TechJam (#BTJ2017) will take over Boston’s Government Center hosting an enormous block party of innovation, music, food, and beer from Jack’s Abbey.

But it’s not just an event for business folks, inventors, and entrepreneurs, they want to see students and have arranged lots of activities to entertain everyone in the crowd.

“Students – You are an important part of making Boston an awesome tech community!  Join us at Boston TechJam 2017News where you can connect with other students as well as leading companies in the tech community. Kickoff summer with lawn games, music, summer eats, a slushy bar and so much free stuff you’ll need a bag to carry it all out!”

Home to some of the most prestigious schools in technology and innovation, Boston is bursting with brilliant minds who’ve discovered amazing ways for technology to shape our future.

This is your chance to meet them first hand. The TechJam team will celebrate its 5th Anniversary of holding space–lots of space–for some of the brightest students, creative tech start-ups, venture capitalists, and leading technology companies.

You and your family can join them to fraternize, network, geek out, and have a little fun.

Tickets are still available, and this outdoor summer celebration of technological genius might make for a fun after school field trip for high school students who are interested in STEM subjects. It’s never too early, or too late, to get your kids thinking about a career in information and cybersecurity.

Volunteers are also welcomed at the event, so parents and students can volunteer together to HELP@TECHJAM.

No, I didn’t just call you

“Hi, I just missed a call from this number.” No, you didn’t. You spoofed my number.

The first time it happened, was actually via a text message. Someone wrote, “Who is this?” The non-cybersavvy, coffee deprived and inclined to be helpful mom in me responded with, “Sorry, I’m confused. You just texted me.”

Mystery texter responded, “I just missed a call from this number.”

Kindly, I replied, “Sorry, but I didn’t text you.”

Sometimes I get really annoyed with myself when I make these silly little mistakes that could result in something as minor as future annoyance or as critical as fraud.

Now, I get phone calls multiple times a day from a variety of different people, men and women, claiming to have just missed a call from me.

It’s called spoofing, and in the email world, it’s been around for a while. Many fraudsters have traditionally used spoofing as part of their phishing campaigns. Now, they are spoofing cell phones.

It’s a thing, though according to my tightly knit circle, it’s not happening everywhere to everyone, but I can confirm that it is happening with a variety of different cell phone providers from Sprint to AT&T.

My experience with the customer service provider at Sprint was less than helpful, so I had to go out and do some research on my own, and I’ve yet to gain clarity on whether there are any critical security risks that we cell phone users need to be wary of.

As best as I can tell, there is a risk of giving away our personal information to a fraudster, so share nothing with no one and tell your kids to do the same.

Because, “Spoofing is often used as part of an attempt to trick someone into giving away valuable personal information so it can be used in fraudulent activity or sold illegally,” the act is prohibited by the FCC.

There are all sorts of unwanted phone calls, much like junk mail that has gone from the traditional mailbox to our email boxes. It’s another marketing technique, albeit not a good one.

But, unwanted calls are different from spoofing. These are not telemarketers, and there are step beyond adding your number to a national do not call list that you can and should take if you find yourself answering a random return call that you never actually dialed.

The trick is in recognizing the fraudulent caller. When a fraudster is using the spoofing tools, “The caller ID feature is sometimes manipulated by spoofers who masquerade as representatives of banks, creditors, insurance companies, or even the government,” according to the FCC.

Here are some peculiar details to watch for.

  1. There is no caller ID
  2. The number looks surprisingly like yours, except the last 4 digits are different
  3. It’s often the same statement, “I just missed a call from this number.”
  4. It could also be a text message asking, “Who is this?”

Your best bet is to start blocking the numbers, lest you decide to change your phone number all together. It’s an option that is offered, though a huge hassle with no guarantee that the number won’t be spoofed again.

To play it safe, just don’t answer a call unless you recognize the number, and don’t respond to random text messages. If you think your number has been compromised, you can also file a complaint with the FCC or ask your provider about Caller ID apps.

College applicants need to be careful with social media accounts

Colleges reviewing prospective student applications have publicly noted for several years now that social media accounts are fair game for admissions directors.  If you use and maintain social media accounts, admissions departments can, and often will, search the internet for what they can find on students who have applied to attend their college/university.  And students should be posting, commenting and sharing material with this in mind if they want to put their best foot forward when a curious admissions director starts trolling the web for recon.

Unfortunately for a group of students accepted to Harvard, they failed to heed this advice, as ten prospective members of the class of 2021 were recently informed that their admission to the school has been revoked, according to this story in the Harvard Crimson.   








Is Snapchat safe for my teen?

I’ve been hearing about an app called Snapchat for about a year now. I am not a user of the app myself, but it has made a lot of waves and is particularly popular among teenagers. Snapchat allows users to send pictures, videos and messages which only last for a few seconds (between 1 and ten) and then the media disappears, leaving no digital trace (or does it? more on that in a minute). It’s touted for enabling “spontaneity” and allows the user to experience things in “real time.”

Unknown-2How many people are using Snapchat now? The most recent statistics I can find put the average number of monthly users at 100 million. And according to this video, it is THE social app to look out for because it “murders Facebook” (their words, not mine). While I’m often leery of big proclamations about the “next big thing” in anything, there is no denying that Snapchat is making an impression on a younger demographic and is worth some discussion.

Snapchat’s largest base of users are between 13 and 23. That means if you have a teenager, there is a good chance he or she is either using it already, or has friends that do. So, what’s important to know about this app?

1.) It has a reputation as the “sexting” app

Because the pictures and video have a limited shelf life, it is desirable because users assume that means they are leaving no digital trace of their naughty pics and messages.  But there ARE WAYS to save the images and messages, including using another phone to take a picture of it, or with a simple screenshot. Users should never ASSUME anything about their digital footprint. Advise your family members who may use this app that they should follow the same rules as other social media – never post something you don’t want the world to see.

2.) It can be used for bullying

Again, because of the limited shelf life of the media, some report Snapchat has been used for harassment and bullying. Ask your teen if they are aware of any of this behavior. Ask if they have witnessed or been subjected to it. Remind them that you won’t allow bullying and that they should speak to an adult if they are being harassed or know someone involved in bullying.

3.) It carries similar risks as other social media when it comes to strangers

Teen users especially should keep their network of friends on Snapchat to actual real-life friends – and only friends they really trust, as the fleeting nature of teen friendships could mean a controversial picture could come back to haunt them. Advise your teen NOT to connect with strangers or mere acquaintances on Snapchat – or any social media for that matter.

4.) It allows them to easily hide conversations from parents

If you have a “we will monitor regularly” type agreement with your child with regard to their device and online activity, then Snapchat is going to make that very difficult. Checking histories and message archives won’t reveal much because of the limited shelf life of conversations and pictures. If you are concerned about secrecy with your teen, consider making this app off limits.

As always, I’d like to remind you again that a conversation is your best security defense.  We can’t keep new apps and devices out of our kids’ hands forever, nor do we want to.  But understanding what is going on with newer, hotter apps, games and devices is what is going to help you guide your child in their growth as a secure and civil online citizen.







The skinny on screen time: How much is too much?

Now that the CyberSavvy Family is back into the swing of the school year, it means afternoons and evenings are filled with sports practices and games, hanging out with friends after school, homework and meal prep, and then some TV and time spent on devices during what little bit of the day we have left. This is causing CyberSavvyKid #1 (CSK1) to take part in a lot of handwringing and complaining on many days when he feels he hasn’t been allowed enough time on his iPod. CSK1 ADORES his iPod and has basically traded in old habits of watching NickJr. and Disney for almost exclusively watching YouTube videos for gaming tips and tricks.

CyberSavvyDad and I didn’t put a lot of limits on how much time CSK1 was spending on his iPod during the summer. He was busy all day with summer camps and having fun, so the hour or two in the evening on a device didn’t seem like a big deal after a long day of outdoor play.  Our rules for safe online viewing remain the same: We insist CSK1 use his device in a family area. We check in regularly on what he is viewing and doing. We check the history on occasion and make it clear to CSK that we may do this at anytime.

But as the school year schedule has kicked back in, gone are the lazy days of largely unrestricted summer iPod use, and I find myself pondering: How much screen time is too much during the school week? Or any day of the week?

An article published yesterday in the New York Times notes that the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s founding genius and king of device innovation, was, in fact, a “low tech parent” according to the article. Jobs allegedly told the author of the article that he and his wife “limit the amount of technology our kids use at home.”  The article then went on to point to several CEOs working for high tech companies who employ a similar mindset inside their homes.

The risks of too much screen time – both for TV and device screens – have been widely discussed for many years. They include obesity and sleep disturbance.  Some new research even suggests screen time is negatively impacting our children’s ability to recognize human emotion.

On the other hand, reducing screen time becomes increasingly difficult with each year, especially as children age and are actually expected to use devices for research and other educational endeavors as part of their homework.   Also, kids who live in households where Mom and Dad regularly have their heads buried in an iPhone or laptop will likely be reluctant to head off to read a book when a parent points out they are “spending too much time on that thing” and then resumes scrolling their Twitter or Facebook feed immediately after.

While the answer to the question “How much screen time is too much?” will vary from family to family, I think we can all agree that the more time we spend talking and engaging with each other, or moving our bodies with play and sport, or getting caught up in a great book, is undeniably more healthy and stimulating for our brains than zoning out on YouTube (sorry CSK1).

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers these tips for reducing your child’s screen time:

Talk to Your Family

Explain to your kids that it’s important to sit less and move more in order to stay at a healthy weight. Tell them they’ll also have more energy, and it will help them develop and/or perfect new skills, such as riding a bike or shooting hoops, that could lead to more fun with friends. Tell them you’ll do the same.

Set a Good Example

You need to be a good role model and limit your screen time to no more than two hours per day, too.  If your kids see you following your own rules, then they’ll be more likely to do the same.

Log Screen Time vs. Active Time

Start tracking how much time your family spends in front of a screen, including things like TV- and DVD-watching, playing video games, and using the computer for something other than school or work. Then take a look at how much physical activity they get. That way you’ll get a sense of what changes need to be made

Make Screen Time = Active Time

When you do spend time in front of the screen, do something active. Stretch, do yoga and/or lift weights. Or, challenge the family to see who can do the most push-ups, jumping jacks, or leg lifts during TV commercial breaks.

Set Screen Time Limits

Create a house rule that limits screen time to two hours every day. More importantly,enforce the rule.

Create Screen-free Bedrooms

Don’t put a TV or computer in your child’s bedroom. Kids who have TVs in their room tend to watch about 1.5 hours more TV a day than those that don’t. Plus, it keeps them in their room instead of spending time with the rest of the family.

Make Meal Time = Family Time

Turn off the TV during meals. Better yet, remove the TV from the eating area if you have one there. Family meals are a good time to talk to each other. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat more nutritious meals. Make eating together a priority and schedule family meals at least two to three times a week.

Provide Other Options

Watching TV can become a habit, making it easy to forget what else is out there. Give your kids ideas and/or alternatives, such as playing outside, getting a new hobby, or learning a sport. See more tips for getting physically active.

Don’t Use TV Time as Reward or Punishment

Practices like this make TV seem even more important to children.

Understand TV Ads & Placements

Seeing snack foods, candy, soda, and fast food on television affects all of us, especially kids. Help your child understand that because it’s on TV—or your favorite TV characters/actors eat or drink it—doesn’t mean a food or drink is good for you.  Get your kids to think about why their favorite cartoon character is trying to get them to eat a certain brand of breakfast cereal.



Fear not the hacker!

The term “hacker” has come a long way in the last decade. Once a word that conjured up shady images of a criminal trying to access systems or data for nefarious purposes, hacker has now taken on a different meaning (and, actually, it has several definitions these days). Hacker by today’s standards is actually a complimentary way to refer to someone with an expertise and/or skill. Traditionally, it has its roots in computer programming, but these days the word is used across many areas and topics. Much like the words “nerd” and “geek” have evolved to describe someone with an expertise or passion in a certain topic, so, too, has the word hacker.

Sure, we still see the words “hacked” and “hacker” in the news every day with negative connotations. Companies get hacked, information is stolen, data is breached, disastrous PR ensues for the businesses involved. But it’s not all gloom and doom for hackers. In fact, many hackers put their skills to many good uses these days, too. Computer and systems hackers are now working for organizations in new, ethical ways. Penetration testers, or White Hat hackers, are actually employed by companies in their security departments, or hired as consultants, to help uncover security vulnerabilities and shore up defenses. Being able to call oneself a hacker is actually an honorable thing in many contexts these days.

What does this mean for you as parents? It means hacking is no longer something to be feared. Becoming a hacker is something we should all aspire to. Culinary hacks can help us get tasty, more nutritious meals on the table in less time. Parenting hacks can assist with getting life to run a lot more smoothly (and peacefully) in your home. Math hacks offer clever ways to quickly figure out complex problems. Do you see where I am going with this? Hacking can offer helpful shortcuts to just about anything – and none of it needs to be unethical.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I am challenging all of you to start using hacks in your life every day. The next time you are contemplating how much you despise doing some daily, menial task – like laundry – I want you to search “laundry hacks” and find several, ingenious ways to make your weekly clothes-cleaning ritual more efficient. The next time you and the family are headed out on a long car trip, search for “car ride hacks” and find lists and lists of hacks and suggestions for making a 5 hour ride to grandma’s slightly less tedious. Again, hacking can be applied to just about anything.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of how hacking can play a role in everyday tasks in life, I want you to start applying it to technology, too. I am speaking particularly to those of you out there with a 7 year old that can make his way around a laptop or iPod better than you. If you want to be able to speak openly, honestly and authoritatively about what your child is doing online and on the computer, you need to know how that shiny little box works.

Search for Internet hacks and find fun new ways to browse the Web. Search Microsoft Excel hacks and suddenly you’re making your way around a spreadsheet like a CPA. What type of device is your family using? Search the name of the device and “hacks” and suddenly you’ve opened up a new world of shortcuts and tricks to using your device. For those of you who want to go further and find out what professional hackers are up to, there are games you can play to pretend to be a hacker.

Hacking is cool and fun. It sparks creativity and helps us solve problems. Get your kids involved and encourage them to explore new ways to hack things, too. I’m not advocating for ways to cheat at math homework or break into someone’s computer, but encouraging them to find ways to do things in a simpler or more innovative way when appropriate. When you’re hacking, you’re also learning – and any cyber savvy parent can get on board with that.

Game on! Staying safe (and appropriate) during online play

CyberSavvyKid #1 has grown into quite the game enthusiast in the last year.  It’s been long a journey, actually.  It all started around the wee age of four for CSK#1.  He had one of those Leapster gaming units with the little cartridges for Star Wars math, etc.  So cute!  I remember beaming with pride – both at myself and at CSK – as he played and learned at the same time. How clever!

From there we moved onto a Nintendo DS. And I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment that a lot of the education was now lost. But it was still a simpler time as CSK dragged his gaming device with him everywhere and was content with it, as he had yet to discover the world of online gaming.

Around the age of seven, we started using age-appropriate online gaming forums. Club Penguin and Pop Tropica were favorites for several years. And while I knew it was time for CSK to start understanding the risks of interacting with others online, I felt comfortable letting him use the child-geared sites with the understanding that I would be monitoring him regularly.

Now we’ve moved up a few years in age and so has our taste in online games. CSK is on Minecraft – a lot. And Minecraft (if you are not familiar with it) is a game that can involve interacting with other anonymous online players. When he is playing on his iPod, he wants access to all manner of gaming apps – many of which I say no to because they are rated 17+. Friends, it is often a struggle. A battle of wits, if you will – and it exhausts me.

CSK knows that, despite his pleas, I will not allow him to purchase and play games that are not age appropriate. CSK knows that even if (insert friend’s name here)’s mom allows him to play it, that I still will not.  This is about more than just the swears, violence and mild nudity that comes with many of the 17+ games. It is about an elementary school kid playing a game that deals in adult themes (Grand Theft Auto anyone?) that he is far too young to understand right now. This is about keeping him in the “Kid Zone” for as long as I can.  There will be time for 17+ games in the future.  And, if I can stick to my guns that long, I hope it will be when CSK turns 17.

For now, here are some other tips from (the National Cyber Security Alliance) for keeping kids of all ages as safe as possible while gaming online:

Keep a Clean Machine:

Gaming systems are computers with software that needs to be kept up‐to‐date (just like your PC, laptop, phone or tablet). Security protections are built‐in and updated on a regular basis. Take time to make sure all the online gaming devices in your house have the latest protections.

-Keep security software current: Having the latest security software, web browser, and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware, and other online threats.

-Protect all devices that connect to the Internet: Computers, smart phones, gaming systems, and other web‐ enabled devices all need protection from viruses and malware.

Protect Your Child’s Personal Information

-Talk to your children about what constitutes personal information. Children need to know what is appropriate to share and what is not. Names, birthdays, age, geographic location, contact information, and photos with identifiable information all count as personal information. While it’s fun to engage in games with players from around the globe, children should retain a level of anonymity to protect themselves from those who might not have the best intentions.

– Secure your kids’ accounts: Ask for protection beyond passwords. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you play games on that site.

– Make passwords long and strong: Combine capital and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols to create a more secure password.

-Help your kids own their online presence: When available, set their privacy and security settings on websites to your comfort level for information sharing. Remind them that it’s ok to limit how and with whom they share information.

-Have your kids use an avatar rather than an actual picture of themselves.

-Use voice chat safely or not at all. If your kids play a game that features live voice chat, make sure they disguise their voice. If the game does not have this feature, do not let them use voice chat.

Be Web Wise

-Stay informed of the latest Internet developments, know what to do if something goes wrong and be aware of what your kids are doing online.

– Stay current. Keep pace with new ways to stay safe online. Check trusted websites for the latest information, share with your children, and encourage them to be web wise.

– Think before you act: Teach your kids to be wary of communication that implores them to act immediately, offers something that sounds too good to be true, or asks for personal information. They should not accept downloads from strangers. This includes cheat programs that may claim to help them perform better in the game, but really could be carrying malware.

-Know how to block and/or report a cyberbully. Keep a record of the conversation if they are being harassed and encourage them not to engage the bully.

-Read and understand the ratings for the games that your children are playing. Some game sites have multiple games with different ratings, so check all of them.

– Participate in the game with your kids.

Be a Good Online Citizen

-It is easy to say things from behind a computer screen that you would never say face to face. Remind your kids to maintain the same level of courtesy online as they would in the real world.

-Safer for me more secure for all: What you and your kids do online has the potential to affect everyone – at home, at work and around the world. Practicing good online habits benefits the global digital community.

-Be respectful of other players. Playing games has always been a ripe setting for engaging in conversation that can provoke other players. Online gaming should be a place where good sportsmanship is practiced.


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