Bomb Threat Hoaxer, DDos Boss Gets 3 Years

The ringleader of a gang of cyber hooligans that made bomb threats against hundreds of schools and launched distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Web sites — including KrebsOnSecurity on multiple occasions — has been sentenced to three years in a U.K. prison, and faces the possibility of additional charges from U.S.-based law enforcement officials.

George Duke-Cohan, 19, caused a massive uproar earlier this year after communicating a series of bomb threats against 1,700 schools, colleges and universities across the United Kingdom. But shortly after being arrested on suspicion of the threats and released, Duke-Cohan was back at it again — this time expanding his threats to include schools in the United States.

One of many tweets from the attention-starved Apophis Squad, which launched multiple DDoS attacks against KrebsOnsecurity over the past few months.

At the same time, authorities in the U.K. and U.S. discovered that Duke-Cohan was responsible for falsely reporting the hijack of a plane bound for the United States. That flight, which had almost 300 passengers on board, was later quarantined in San Francisco pending a full security check.

Duke-Cohan was part of an attention-seeking group of ne’er-do-wells who called themselves the Apophis Squad. Duke-Cohan and his crew modeled themselves after the actions of the Lizard Squad, another group of e-fame seeking online hoodlums who also ran a DDoS-for-hire service, called in bomb threats to airlines, DDoSed this Web site repeatedly and whose members were nearly all subsequently arrested and charged with various cybercrimes.

Indeed, until recently the Apophis Squad’s Web site and DDoS-for-hire service was hosted on the same Internet server used by a handful of other domains that were tied to the Lizard Squad.

Earlier this year, KrebsOnSecurity.com came under sustained attack from the Apophis Squad, who took to Twitter to taunt this author while the attacks were underway. Duke-Cohan and other Apophis Squad members also attacked the free email service Protonmail, even as all of them continued to use their Protonmail accounts to communicate about the attacks.

KrebsOnSecurity assisted Protonmail in its investigation into the attacks, and the company later credited this author with helping to identify Duke-Cohan as the driving force behind the DDoS attacks.

Sources close to the investigation say Duke-Cohan may yet see additional charges from U.S.-based authorities. Also, several other members identified by this author as alleged co-conspirators along with Duke-Cohan have not yet been charged with a crime either in the U.K. or in the United States.

It’s not always fun when your site isn’t responsive because of determined attacks from groups like the Apophis Squad, but I try not to get too bent out of shape when these attacks do occur — mainly for two reasons: Firstly, those responsible typically end up getting busted and going to jail. Also, I usually get at least one good story out of it. In this case, make that two good stories.

Further reading:

Schools Bomb Hoaxes: Teenager Jailed for Nationwide Threats

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/12/bomb-threat-hoaxer-ddos-boss-gets-3-years/

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A Breach, or Just a Forced Password Reset?

Software giant Citrix Systems recently forced a password reset for many users of its Sharefile content collaboration service, warning it would be doing this on a regular basis in response to password-guessing attacks that target people who re-use passwords across multiple Web sites. Many Sharefile users interpreted this as a breach at Citrix and/or Sharefile, but the company maintains that’s not the case. Here’s a closer look at what happened, and some ideas about how to avoid a repeat of this scenario going forward.

The notice sent to ShareFile users looked like this:

Dozens of readers forwarded the above message to KrebsOnSecurity, saying they didn’t understand the reasoning for the mass password reset and that they suspected a breach at ShareFile.

I reached out to ShareFile and asked them point blank whether this reset effort was in response to any sort of intrusion at Citrix or ShareFile; they said no. I asked if this notice had been sent to everyone, and inquired whether ShareFile offers any form(s) of multi-factor authentication options that customers could use to supplement the security of passwords.

A Citrix spokesperson referred me to this page, which says ShareFile users have a number of options when it comes to locking down their accounts with multi-factor authentication, including a one-time code sent via SMS/text message, as well as one-time passwords generated by support authenticator mobile apps from Google and Microsoft (app-based multi-factor is the more secure option, as discussed here).

More importantly, the Citrix spokesperson said the company did not enforce a password reset on accounts that were using multi-factor authentication. To wit:

“This is not in response to a breach of Citrix products or services,” wrote spokesperson Jamie Buranich. “Citrix forced password resets with the knowledge that attacks of this nature historically come in waves. Attacker’s additional efforts adapt to the results, often tuning the volume and approach of their methods. Our objective was to minimize the risk to our customers. We did not enforce a password reset on accounts that are using more stringent authentication controls [emphasis added]. Citrix also directly integrates with common SSO solutions, which significantly reduces risk.”

The company did not respond to questions about why it decided to adopt regular password resets as a policy when doing so flies in the face of password and authentication best practices recommended the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which warns:

“Verifiers SHOULD NOT require memorized secrets to be changed arbitrarily (e.g., periodically). However, verifiers SHALL force a change if there is evidence of compromise of the authenticator.”

NIST explains its rationale for steering organizations away from regular forced password resets thusly:

“Users tend to choose weaker memorized secrets when they know that they will have to change them in the near future. When those changes do occur, they often select a secret that is similar to their old memorized secret by applying a set of common transformations such as increasing a number in the password. This practice provides a false sense of security if any of the previous secrets has been compromised since attackers can apply these same common transformations.”

“But if there is evidence that the memorized secret has been compromised, such as by a breach of the verifier’s hashed password database or observed fraudulent activity, subscribers should be required to change their memorized secrets. However, this event-based change should occur rarely, so that they are less motivated to choose a weak secret with the knowledge that it will only be used for a limited period of time.”

In short, NIST says it makes sense to force an across-the-board password reset following a breach — either of a specific user’s account or the entire password database. But doing so at regular intervals absent such evidence of compromise is likely to result in less complex and secure passwords.

Ideally, ShareFile users who received a password reset notice can avoid the next round of password resets by adopting one of the two-step authentication options mentioned above. And I hope it goes without saying, but please don’t re-use a password you used anywhere else.

However, if you are the type of person who likes to re-use passwords, then you definitely need to be using a password manager, which helps you pick and remember strong passwords/passphrases and essentially lets you use the same strong master password/passphrase across all Web sites.

Incidentally, there are several companies — such as auth0 and Okta — that make it easy to integrate with breached password databases like Troy Hunt’s HaveIBeenPwned.com to help proactively prevent users from picking passwords they have used at other sites (or at least at other sites that have been breached publicly).

Whether online merchants are willing to adopt such preemptive approaches is another matter, said Julie Conroy, research director with the Aite Group, a market analyst firm.

“With the reality that such a vast swath of username/password combinations have been compromised, this creates the potential for a ton of inline friction, something that is an anathema to merchants, and which banks work hard to stay away from as well,” Conroy said.

Update: 4:53 p.m. ET: Citrix just published its own blog post about this here.

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/12/a-breach-or-just-a-forced-password-reset/

Jared, Kay Jewelers Parent Fixes Data Leak

The parent firm of bling retailers Jared and Kay Jewelers has fixed a bug in the Web sites of both companies that exposed the order information for all of their online customers.

In mid-November 2018, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a Jared customer who found something curious after receiving a receipt via email for a pair of earrings he’d just purchased as a surprise gift for his girlfriend.

Dallas-based Web designer Brandon Sheehy discovered that slightly modifying the link in the confirmation email he received and pasting that into a Web browser revealed another customer’s order, including their name, billing address, shipping address, phone number, email address, items and total amount purchased, delivery date, tracking link, and the last four digits of the customer’s credit card number.

Sheehy said after discovering the weakness, his mind quickly turned to the various ways that crooks might exploit it.

“My first thought was they could track a package of jewelry to someone’s door and swipe it off their doorstep,” he said. “My second thought was that someone could call Jared’s customers and pretend to be Jared, reading the last four digits of the customer’s card and saying there’d been a problem with the order, and if they could get a different card for the customer they could run it right away and get the order out quickly. That would be a pretty convincing scam. Or just targeted phishing attacks.”

Concerned that his own information was similarly exposed, Sheehy contacted Jared parent company Signet Jewelers and asked them to fix the data exposure. When several weeks passed and Sheehy could still view his information and that of other Jared customers, he reached out to KrebsOnSecurity.

Scott Lancaster, chief information security officer at Signet, said the company did fix the problem for all future orders shortly after receiving a customer’s complaint. But Lancaster said Signet neglected to remedy the data exposure for all past orders until contacted by KrebsOnSecurity.

“When a customer first brought this matter to our attention in early November, we fixed it for all new orders going forward,” Lancaster said. “But we didn’t notice at the time that this applied to all past orders as well as future orders.”

Lancaster said the problem affected only orders made online through jared.com and kay.com, and that the weakness was not present on the sites of the company’s other jewelry brands, such as Zales and Piercing Pagoda.

Data exposures like these are some of the most common yet preventable for online retailers. In July, identity theft protection service LifeLock corrected an information disclosure flaw that exposed the email address of millions of subscribers. And in April 2018, PaneraBread.com remedied a weakness exposing millions of customer names, email and physical addresses, birthdays and partial credit card numbers.

Sheehy said he’s glad Signet has fully fixed the bug, but said he was annoyed that it seems like many companies fail to address or even acknowledge such failures unless and until they’re confronted by the news media.

“Being a Web developer, the only thing I can chalk this up to is complete incompetence, and being very lazy and indifferent to your customers’ data,” he said. “This isn’t novel stuff, it’s basic Web site security.”

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/12/jared-kay-jewelers-parent-fixes-data-leak/

What the Marriott Breach Says About Security

We don’t yet know the root cause(s) that forced Marriott this week to disclose a four-year-long breach involving the personal and financial information of 500 million guests of its Starwood hotel properties. But anytime we see such a colossal intrusion go undetected for so long, the ultimate cause is usually a failure to adopt the most important principle in cybersecurity defense that applies to both corporations and consumers: Assume you are compromised.

TO COMPANIES

For companies, this principle means accepting the notion that it is no longer possible to keep the bad guys out of your networks entirely. This doesn’t mean abandoning all tenets of traditional defense, such as quickly applying software patches and using technologies to block or at least detect malware infections.

It means accepting that despite how many resources you expend trying to keep malware and miscreants out, all of this can be undone in a flash when users click on malicious links or fall for phishing attacks. Or a previously unknown security flaw gets exploited before it can be patched. Or any one of a myriad other ways attackers can win just by being right once, when defenders need to be right 100 percent of the time.

The companies run by leaders and corporate board members with advanced security maturity are investing in ways to attract and retain more cybersecurity talent, and arranging those defenders in a posture that assumes the bad guys will get in.

This involves not only focusing on breach prevention, but at least equally on intrusion detection and response. It starts with the assumption that failing to respond quickly when an adversary gains an initial foothold is like allowing a tiny cancer cell to metastasize into a much bigger illness that — left undetected for days, months or years — can cost the entire organism dearly.

The companies with the most clueful leaders are paying threat hunters to look for signs of new intrusions. They’re reshuffling the organizational chart so that people in charge of security report to the board, the CEO, and/or chief risk officer — anyone but the Chief Technology Officer.

They’re constantly testing their own networks and employees for weaknesses, and regularly drilling their breach response preparedness (much like a fire drill). And, apropos of the Marriott breach, they are finding creative ways to cut down on the volume of sensitive data that they need to store and protect.

TO INDIVIDUALS

Likewise for individuals, it pays to accept two unfortunate and harsh realities:

Reality #1: Bad guys already have access to personal data points that you may believe should be secret but which nevertheless aren’t, including your credit card information, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, date of birth, address, previous addresses, phone number, and yes — even your credit file.

Reality #2: Any data point you share with a company will in all likelihood eventually be hacked, lost, leaked, stolen or sold — usually through no fault of your own. And if you’re an American, it means (at least for the time being) your recourse to do anything about that when it does happen is limited or nil.

Marriott is offering affected consumers a year’s worth of service from a company owned by security firm Kroll that advertises the ability to scour cybercrime underground markets for your data. Should you take them up on this offer? It probably can’t hurt as long as you’re not expecting it to prevent some kind of bad outcome. But once you’ve accepted Realities #1 and #2 above it becomes clear there is nothing such services could tell you that you don’t already know.

Once you’ve owned both of these realities, you realize that expecting another company to safeguard your security is a fool’s errand, and that it makes far more sense to focus instead on doing everything you can to proactively prevent identity thieves, malicious hackers or other ne’er-do-wells from abusing access to said data.

This includes assuming that any passwords you use at one site will eventually get hacked and leaked or sold online (see Reality #2), and that as a result it is an extremely bad idea to re-use passwords across multiple Web sites. For example, if you used your Starwood password anywhere else, that other account you used it at is now at a much higher risk of getting compromised.

By the way, if you are the type of person who likes to re-use passwords, then you definitely need to be using a password manager, which helps you pick and remember strong passwords/passphrases and essentially lets you use the same strong master password/passphrase across all Web sites.

Theassume you’re compromised” philosophy involves freezing your credit files with the major credit bureaus, and regularly ordering free copies of your credit file from annualcreditreport.com to make sure nobody is monkeying with your credit (except you).

It means planting your flag at various online services before fraudsters do it for you, such as at the Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service, Internal Revenue Service, your mobile provider, and your Internet service provider (ISP).

Assuming compromise means placing very little trust or confidence in anything that comes to you via email. In the context of this Marriott/Starwood breach, for example, consider all the data points that attackers may now have to make a phishing or malware attack more likely to be successful: Your Starwood account number, your address, phone number, email address, passport number, dates and times of your reservations, and credit card information.

How hard would it be for someone to craft an email that warns of a problem with a recent reservation or with your Starwood account, urging you to click a booby trapped link or attachment to learn more? Now imagine that such targeted emails can come from any brand with whom you’ve done business (for a refresher, see Reality #2 above).

Assuming you’re compromised means beefing up your passwords by adopting more robust multi-factor authentication — and perhaps even transitioning away from SMS/text messages for multifactor toward more secure app- or key-based options.

TOUGH TRADE-OFFS

If the advice above sounds inconvenient, unfair and expensive for all involved, congratulations: You are well on your way to internalizing Realities #1 and #2. For better or worse, being a savvy consumer means constantly having to make difficult trade-offs between security, privacy, and convenience.

Oh, and you generally only get to pick two out of three of these qualities. Same goes for the trio of high-speed, high-quality, and low-cost. Or good, fast, and cheap. Again, pick two. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, these transactions become even more lopsided and difficult to weigh when one party to them always selects the same trade-off (e.g., fast, low-cost, and convenient). Right now, it sure seems like there aren’t a lot of consequences when huge companies that ought to know better screw up massively on security, leaving consumers and their paying customers to clean up the mess.

I don’t know how many more big-time privacy and security debacles we need to convince our nation’s leaders that perhaps we should enshrine in law some basic standards of care for how companies handle and secure consumer data, and what rights and expectations consumers should have when companies fail to meet those standards. Because it’s clear that unless and until this happens, some subset of businesses out there will continue to make the most expedient and short-sighted trade-offs available to them, regardless of the impact to their customers and the public at large.

On this point, as with many others related to Internet security and privacy, I found it hard to argue with the opinion of my home state Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who observed:

“It seems like every other day we learn about a new mega-breach affecting the personal data of millions of Americans. Rather than accepting this trend as the new normal, this latest incident should strengthen Congress’ resolve. We must pass laws that require data minimization, ensuring companies do not keep sensitive data that they no longer need. And it is past time we enact data security laws that ensure companies account for security costs rather than making their consumers shoulder the burden and harms resulting from these lapses.”

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/12/what-the-marriott-breach-says-about-security/

Marriott: Data on 500 Million Guests Stolen in 4-Year Breach

Hospitality giant Marriott today disclosed a massive data breach exposing the personal and financial information on as many as a half billion customers who made reservations at any of its Starwood properties over the past four years.

Marriott said the breach involved unauthorized access to a database containing guest information tied to reservations made at Starwood properties on or before Sept. 10, 2018, and that its ongoing investigation suggests the perpetrators had been inside the company’s networks since 2014.

Marriott said the intruders encrypted information from the hacked database (likely to avoid detection by any data-loss prevention tools when removing the stolen information from the company’s network), and that its efforts to decrypt that data set was not yet complete. But so far the hotel network believes that the encrypted data cache includes information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property.

“For approximately 327 million of these guests, the information includes some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date and communication preferences,” Marriott said in a statement released early Friday morning.

Marriott added that customer payment card data was protected by encryption technology, but that the company couldn’t rule out the possibility the attackers had also made off with the encryption keys needed to decrypt the data.

The hotel chain did not say precisely when in 2014 the breach was thought to have begun, but it’s worth noting that Starwood disclosed its own breach involving more than 50 properties in November 2015, just days after being acquired by Marriott. According to Starwood’s disclosure at the time, that earlier breach stretched back at least one year — to November 2014.

Back in 2015, Starwood said the intrusion involved malicious software installed on cash registers at some of its resort restaurants, gift shops and other payment systems that were not part of the its guest reservations or membership systems.

However, this would hardly be the first time a breach at a major hotel chain ballooned from one limited to restaurants and gift shops into a full-blown intrusion involving guest reservation data. In Dec. 2016, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that banks were detecting a pattern of fraudulent transactions on credit cards that had one thing in common: They’d all been used during a short window of time at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) properties, including Holiday Inns and other popular chains across the United States.

It took IHG more than a month to confirm that finding, but the company said in a statement at the time it believed the intrusion was limited to malware installed at point of sale systems at restaurants and bars of 12 IHG-managed properties between August and December 2016.

In April 2017, IHG acknowledged that its investigation showed cash registers at more than 1,000 of its properties were compromised with malicious software designed to siphon customer debit and credit card data — including those used at front desks in certain IHG properties.

Marriott says its own network does not appear to have been affected by this four-year data breach, and that the investigation only identified unauthorized access to the separate Starwood network.

Starwood hotel brands include W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Element Hotels, Aloft Hotels, The Luxury Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts, Four Points by Sheraton and Design Hotels that participate in the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program.

Marriott is offering affected guests in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom a free year’s worth of service from WebWatcher, one of several companies that advertise the ability to monitor the cybercrime underground for signs that the customer’s personal information is being traded or sold.

The breach announced today is just the latest in a long string of intrusions involving credit card data stolen from major hotel chains over the past four years — with many chains experiencing multiple breaches. In October 2017, Hyatt Hotels suffered its second card breach in as many years. In July 2017, the Trump Hotel Collection was hit by its third card breach in two years.

In Sept. 2016, Kimpton Hotels acknowledged a breach first disclosed by KrebsOnSecurity. Other breaches first disclosed by KrebsOnSecurity include two separate incidents at White Lodging hotels; a 2015 incident involving card-stealing malware at Mandarin Oriental properites; and a 2015 breach affecting Hilton Hotel properties across the United States.

This is a developing story, and will be updated with analysis soon.

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/11/marriott-data-on-500-million-guests-stolen-in-4-year-breach/

Half of all Phishing Sites Now Have the Padlock

Maybe you were once advised to “look for the padlock” as a means of telling legitimate e-commerce sites from phishing or malware traps. Unfortunately, this has never been more useless advice. New research indicates that half of all phishing scams are now hosted on Web sites whose Internet address includes the padlock and begins with “https://”.

A live Paypal phishing site that uses https:// (has the green padlock).

Recent data from anti-phishing company PhishLabs shows that 49 percent of all phishing sites in the third quarter of 2018 bore the padlock security icon next to the phishing site domain name as displayed in a browser address bar. That’s up from 25 percent just one year ago, and from 35 percent in the second quarter of 2018.

This alarming shift is notable because a majority of Internet users have taken the age-old “look for the lock” advice to heart, and still associate the lock icon with legitimate sites. A PhishLabs survey conducted last year found more than 80% of respondents believed the green lock indicated a website was either legitimate and/or safe.

In reality, the https:// part of the address (also called “Secure Sockets Layer” or SSL) merely signifies the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties. The presence of the padlock does not mean the site is legitimate, nor is it any proof the site has been security-hardened against intrusion from hackers.

A live Facebook phish that uses SSL (has the green padlock).

Most of the battle to combat cybercrime involves defenders responding to offensive moves made by attackers. But the rapidly increasing adoption of SSL by phishers is a good example in which fraudsters are taking their cue from legitimate sites.

“PhishLabs believes that this can be attributed to both the continued use of SSL certificates by phishers who register their own domain names and create certificates for them, as well as a general increase in SSL due to the Google Chrome browser now displaying ‘Not secure’ for web sites that do not use SSL,” said John LaCour, chief technology officer for the company. “The bottom line is that the presence or lack of SSL doesn’t tell you anything about a site’s legitimacy.”

The major Web browser makers work with a number of security organizations to index and block new phishing sites, often serving bright red warning pages that flag the page of a phishing scam and seek to discourage people from visiting the sites. But not all phishing scams get flagged so quickly.

I spent a few minutes browsing phishtank.com for phishing sites that use SSL, and found this cleverly crafted page that attempts to phish credentials from users of Bibox, a cryptocurrency exchange. Click the image below and see if you can spot what’s going on with this Web address:

This live phish targets users of cryptocurrency exchange Bibox. Look carefully at the URL in the address bar, and you’ll notice a squiggly mark over the “i” in Bibox. This is an internationalized domain name, and the real address is https://www.xn--bbox-vw5a%5B.%5Dcom/login

Load the live phishing page at https://www.xn--bbox-vw5a%5B.%5Dcom/login (that link has been hobbled on purpose) in Google Chrome and you’ll get a red “Deceptive Site Ahead” warning. Load the address above — known as “punycode” — in Mozilla Firefox and the page renders just fine, at least as of this writing.

This phishing site takes advantage of internationalized domain names (IDNs) to introduce visual confusion. In this case, the “i” in Bibox.com is rendered as the Vietnamese character “ỉ,” which is extremely difficult to distinguish in a URL address bar.

As KrebsOnSecurity noted in March, while Chrome, Safari and recent versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Edge browsers all render IDNs in their clunky punycode state, Firefox will happily convert the code to the look-alike domain as displayed in the address bar.

If you’re a Firefox (or Tor) user and would like Firefox to always render IDNs as their punycode equivalent when displayed in the browser address bar, type “about:config” without the quotes into a Firefox address bar.

Then in the “search:” box type “punycode,” and you should see one or two options there. The one you want is called “network.IDN_show_punycode.” By default, it is set to “false”; double-clicking that entry should change that setting to “true.”

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/11/half-of-all-phishing-sites-now-have-the-padlock/

How to Shop Online Like a Security Pro

‘Tis the season when even those who know a thing or two about Internet scams tend to let down their guard in the face of an eye-popping discount or the stress of last-minute holiday shopping. So here’s a quick refresher course on how to make it through the next few weeks without getting snookered online.

Adopting a shopping strategy of simply buying from the online merchant with the lowest advertised prices can be a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your wallet, for the simple reason that there are tons of completely fake e-commerce sites out there looking to separate the unwary from their credit card details.

Even people who shop mainly at big-name online stores can get scammed if they’re not wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. For example, KrebsOnSecurity got taken for hundreds of dollars just last year after trying to buy a pricey Sonos speaker from an established Amazon merchant who was selling it new and unboxed at huge discount.

I later received an email from the seller, who said his Amazon account had been hacked and abused by scammers to create fake sales. Amazon ultimately refunded the money, but if this happens to you around the holidays it could derail plans to get all your shopping done before the expected gift-giving day arrives.

Here are some other safety and security tips to keep in mind when shopping online:

-WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK ‘EM OUT: If you don’t know much about the online merchant that has the item you wish to buy, take a few minutes to investigate its reputation. After all, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season, and then vanish forever not long afterward.

If you’re buying from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly.  How do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name. The more recent the site’s “created” date, the more likely it is a phantom store.

-USE A CREDIT CARD: It’s nearly impossible for consumers to tell how secure a main street or online merchant is, and safety seals or attestations that something is “hacker safe” are a guarantee of nothing. In my experience, such sites are just as likely to be compromised as e-commerce sites without these dubious security seals.

No, it’s best just to shop as if they’re all compromised. With that in mind, if you have the choice between using a credit or debit card, shop with your credit card.

Sure, the card associations and your bank are quick to point out that you’re not liable for fraudulent charges that you report in a timely manner, whether it’s debit or a credit card. But this assurance may ring hollow if you wake up one morning to find your checking accounts emptied by card thieves after shopping at a breached merchant with a debit card.

Who pays for the fees levied against you by different merchants when your checks bounce? You do. Does the bank reimburse you when your credit score takes a ding because your mortgage or car payment was late? Don’t hold your breath.

-PADLOCK, SCHMADLOCK: For years, consumers have been told to look for the padlock when shopping online. Maybe this was once sound advice. But to my mind, the “look for the lock” mantra has created a false sense of security for many Internet users, and has contributed to a dangerous and widespread misunderstanding about what the lock icon is really meant to convey.

To be clear, you absolutely should run away from any e-commerce site that does not include the padlock (i.e., its Web address does not begin with “https://”).  But the presence of a padlock icon next to the Web site name in your browser’s address bar does not mean the site is legitimate. Nor is it any sort of testimonial that the site has been security-hardened against intrusion from hackers.

The https:// part of the address merely signifies that the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties. Even so, anti-phishing company PhishLabs found in a survey last year that more than 80% of respondents believed the green lock indicated that a website was either legitimate and/or safe.

Now that anyone can get SSL certificates for free, phishers and other scammers that ply their trade via fake Web sites are starting to up their game. In December 2017, PhishLabs estimated that a quarter of all phishing Web sites were outfitting their scam pages with SSL certificates to make them appear more trustworthy. That percentage has almost certainly increased a year later.

-CHCEK THE SHIPPING

Often times, items that are advertised at steeper discounts than other online stores make up for it by charging way more than normal for shipping and handling.

Be careful what you agree to: Check to make sure you know how long the item will take to be shipped, and that you understand the store’s return policies. Also, keep an eye out for hidden surcharges, and be wary of blithely clicking “ok” during the checkout process.

-DON’T TAKE THE BAIT

Be on guard against phishing and malware schemes that take advantage of shopper distraction and frenzy during the holidays. In years past we’ve seen both leverage emails crafted to look like they were sent from a name-brand store claiming that there was a problem with your order or some component of the shipping process.

One perennial phishing and malware scam that seems to kick into high gear around the holidays is spam that purports to have been sent by the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS or some other shipping service, warning of a wayward package.

When in doubt about such a message, visit the e-commerce or shipping site directly, and avoid clicking on links or attachments in email — particularly missives that warn of some dire consequences unless you act quickly. Phishers and malware purveyors typically seize upon some kind of emergency to create a false alarm that often causes recipients to temporarily let their guard down.

-SCOUR YOUR STATEMENTS

Some credit card companies offer cardholders that ability to use “virtual credit cards” — apps that generate a unique, ephemeral credit card number that is good for just one purchase or for a short period of time. The idea being that if fraudsters compromise the virtual card number, your bank doesn’t have to issue you a new card and you won’t have the headache that comes with entering new card details at all of the sites where you’ve set up automatic monthly payments.

These virtual cards are nice in theory, but I’ve never been a big fan. Probably because in many cases they require users to have risky add-ons installed and enabled — like Java or Flash Player. But, hey, if this works for you, great.

Most importantly, keep a close eye on your monthly statements. If I were a fraudster, I’d most definitely wait until the holidays to cram through a bunch of unauthorized charges on stolen cards, so that the bogus purchases would get buried amid a flurry of other legitimate transactions. That’s why it’s key to closely review your credit card bill and to quickly dispute any charges you didn’t authorize.

-BUDDY UP

If you’re planning to spend time with friends and family this holiday season, consider giving the gift of your time and helping out with a security checkup. This might involve making sure that new or old PC has up-to-date security software and the requisite software patches, or locking down their wireless router by enabling security features and disabling risky ones.

If you’re visiting parents or older relatives, consider helping them plant their flags at various online sites and services if they haven’t already done so, such as at the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, or their wireless phone provider and/or Internet Service Provider (ISP).

You’d definitely make it off of Santa’s naughty list if you helped your loved ones take stock of which online accounts could benefit from more robust multi-factor authentication — and perhaps even guiding them away from SMS/text messages for multifactor toward more secure app- or key-based options, where available. You might even take a minute to explain the perils of re-using passwords across multiple sites, and see if they’re interested in using a password manager.

While you’re at it, ask your friends and family if they’ve frozen their credit files at the major consumer credit bureaus. If not, talk with them about what this entails and how it can help ward off identity theft. If they’re game, you might even consider helping them set it up and ensuring that freeze PINs are securely stored so the information is easily available when and if their credit files ever need to be thawed.

From https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/11/how-to-shop-online-like-a-security-pro/