Avoid Common Threats

Malware and Ransomware

Malware is the term to describe "malicious software." It is harmful software or a file that is specifically designed to disrupt, damage, or gain unauthorized access to a computer system. Viruses, spyware, adware, worms, and ransomware are all types of malware. Malware infects systems in a number of ways, but most rely on the user to take an action such as opening an email attachment or clicking a link to download a file.

Ransomware is designed to encrypt and block access to all or part of a computer system until a sum of money is paid. Attackers often look to maximize their payday; consequently, targets are typically larger entities like government agencies, businesses, and colleges. Ideally these targets to have the funds and also experience a significant loss when they cannot access their systems. However, individuals can still be a target of ransomware because they can be a doorway into an organization’s systems.

Unfortunately, there is no "one size fits all" method to prevent or detect ransomware. However, utilizing the following techniques may help minimize your risk of getting malware.

  • Continuous user education
  • Delete suspicious emails and do not click on unverified email links or attachments
  • Keep devices, systems and software (apps) updated
  • Use reputable antivirus software
  • Ensure your network is secure
  • Create regular backups

Password Compromise and Credential Reuse

Many people are aware that they need to use strong, long passwords or passphrases to secure their accounts. However, it’s become increasingly tempting for users to reuse that "strong" credential on multiple accounts to make life a little easier. Security best practices universally recommend users have unique passwords for each application and/or website, but passwords are still too commonly reused or shared among family and friends. This opens the door for attackers and gives them a single key to access multiple accounts.

Attackers can easily acquire a collection of usernames and passwords from a breached website or service, and with the knowledge that passwords are often reused and recycled, attackers will try to use these credentials to access other accounts. If you use the same password and username combination for your bank account, email and favorite online store, consider all could be compromised if one is breached. When it comes to credentials, variety is essential. Password managers are available and can be helpful when it comes to managing the various credentials you use.

Social Engineering

Even with the most advanced technical safeguards in place, organizations can still face cybersecurity challenges because people can be deceived to obtain or compromise information about an organization or its computer systems. Tactics such as phishing, vishing and smishing are common, effective and cheap tactics, but there are others to be aware of as well.


Phishing is the fraudulent practice of sending emails claiming to be from a trusted party (like a coworker or reputable business) in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers. Phishing attempts may also request the user to click on a link or download an attachment in order to install malware. It many cases, these messages are meant to look legitimate (spoofs sender email address to appear as someone you know), enticing ("win a gift card!"), or urgent ("log in now or your account will be suspended").


Voice phishing calls, which are also called “vishing” attacks, are another common attack method. In these attacks, a fraudster pretends to be someone they aren’t in order to gain information. When you receive these calls at home, you might encounter someone pretending to be a credit card representative, an IT support specialist, or even a law enforcement or government agent. At work, a vishing call could be someone impersonating a customer, a vendor, a support technician, or even a coworker from another department or location.


SMS and text message phishing attacks are also knowns as “smishing” messages. Malicious links can be sent via text messages, just as they can via email. Text messages can come in various forms such as traditional messages to your personal cell phone number or messages from applications such Ring Central, Slack, WhatsApp or Skype.


Interested in a free USB drive? What about a free download of the newest and coolest software? Baiting manipulates the victim by playing to natural curiosities, and it typically involves to the potential for something free or exclusive. Once the victim "takes the bait," the attack usually involves infecting a system with malware.


Also known as “piggybacking,” tailgating involves an attacker seeking entry to a restricted area. This may come in the form of a uniformed, good-natured delivery person trying to deliver a stack of packages or food to an office. When the delivery person asks the legitimate employee to hold the door open for them, they have just entered a restricted area and bypassed the office security controls with little effort.


Pretexting involves an attacker using a fake identity to establish trust. The attacker may pose as a trusted vendor or impersonate a facility employee to build a relationship with the victim. This attack takes time and requires the attacker to be consistent and proactive in their ability to build trust. Once the trust is established, the attacker can ask for personal or organizational information which can lead to exploitation.

Combating these threats may seem overwhelming, but they all have one thing in common—they are crimes of trickery. They all depend on fooling the victim into cooperating by clicking a link or providing information. Keep yourself informed of current scams to help prevent these attacks.

Updates and Patches

When systems run outdated software or applications are not upgraded to the latest version, the opportunity for attackers to exploit these vulnerabilities increases. Protect yourself by updating all devices, software, apps, and browser plug-ins on a regular basis. Where possible, turn on automatic updates so that your operating systems and software will notify you when new updates and patches are available. Once notified, don’t ignore the notifications. It's important to install the updates to protect your system and minimize the likelihood of exploitation.

Additional Resources

Stay Safe Online - https://staysafeonline.org/resources/

Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency: Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks - https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/news/avoiding-social-engineering-and-phishing-attacks

Current Email Scams - https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/scam-alerts

Recognize and Avoid Phishing Scams - https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-recognize-and-avoid-phishing-scams

SANS Security Awareness Tip of the Day - https://www.sans.org/tip-of-the-day/

Page last updated 4:58 PM, February 27, 2023