A cyber wake-up call

Until this week, I thought drive-bys were something that happened in the inner city. Spear phishing sounded like my nephew’s favorite pastime in the Florida Keys. Zeus was an ancient god, sitting high atop Mount Olympus.

I also thought that as long as I didn’t respond to any emails hawking cheap Viagra or male enhancement (as tempting as that is), and avoided opening suspect email attachments, that I’d be safe from harmful computer viruses.

Oh, how naive I was.

Little did I know how vulnerable we truly are to the evil doers of the world. Now I can’t close my eyes without visualizing evil Eastern European crime syndicates camped out inside my computer, plotting how to get their grimy little hands on all my personal information.

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds a little far fetched. I’ll admit, I’ve got an overactive imagination. But in this case, my description isn’t too far off. I mean, there are no Ukrainians actually crouched inside my computer monitor. But they might as well be, since malware like that Zeus virus I mentioned gives these cybercriminals access to your most sensitive financial information. And with that in hand, its only a matter of time before what was once yours, is now theirs.

As I said, I was blissfully unaware of all of this until earlier this week, when I sat down with two NBT execs who are experts on the topic: Joe Stagliano and Jim Terry. The two presented during a Cybercrime Prevention forum on Tuesday morning at Canasawacta Country Club, which NBT hosted in conjunction with Commerce Chenango. But I had the opportunity to sit down with both men the day before, to get both a preview of the event and a little background about the information sessions they’ve been hosting in New York and Pennsylvania to help educate people and businesses on how to protect themselves against cybercrime.

To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement.

About 30 seconds into our conversation – right after I heard the $117 billion figure – I was ready to throw in my internet towel and swear off computers from now until the end of time.

But Joe and Jim talked me down off the ledge, so to speak. As you can see, I’m still tapping away at my computer keyboard and surfing my merry way around the internet. Albeit a little more carefully since the enlightening hour I spent with these gentlemen.

I’ve always thought of careers in banking as staid, conservative and, sorry to say, more than a bit boring. But that was before I heard what Jim did for a living. As NBT’s Senior VP and Bank Secrecy Officer (which has to be the coolest title in the entire financial industry), he battles cybercriminals, money launderers and the like on a daily basis, often working in conjunction with the FBI and state police.

By comparison, Joe’s title as Chief Information Officer doesn’t sound quite as exciting. Although, important nonetheless.

You get the picture, right? These are the guys who lose sleep at night sweating over the finer details so the rest of us don’t have to.

My question to them was why, when obviously they’ve already got a lot on their plate keeping NBT’s systems and resources “safe, sound and secure,” are they so committed to educating businesses and individuals on the dangers that are out there.

Jim was the one that explained it to me. He said that the more people are aware of the threats that are out there, of the lengths cybercriminals will go to and the true scope of the problem, the more they will be able to protect themselves and their bank accounts from these thieves.

Because, lets face it, no matter carefully banks like NBT safeguard their resources and their systems, the end-users are still vulnerable if they are not taking steps to do the same.

Joe compared it to giving the keys to a Ferrari to a newly licensed 16-year old driver.

“Nothing good can come of it,” he said.

I think he and Jim could tell what I was thinking as I listened to them talk about how easily malicious viruses can find their way onto your system, by lurking in ads on trusted websites or in the form of unsolicited emails (which I can tell you, as a reporter, I get an awful lot of!). Not to mention through social networking sites. You know, the ones I use daily for both work and personal use.

Yep. I was ready to ditch my laptop in the first trash receptacle.

But again, they talked me down. They reminded me what a wonderful resource the internet is, and gave me a few basic tips on how to protect myself from the most blatant threats.

The tips weren’t just for me of course, but rather a recitation of the 9 Points of Protection they use in their presentation.

Most of these steps are fairly simple, and logical. Don’t mix business and pleasure. (Or as they put it, do your financial transactions on a dedicated computer.) Keep tabs on your information, by checking your accounts daily. Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. Change your passwords often. Don’t talk to strangers, or click on links in their emails. And never trust anyone with bad grammar.

To have a look at all nine, you can visit their website: www.nbtbank.com/security_business.html.

I have to say thanks to Joe and Jim for giving me this wake-up call. I still see those menacing Eastern Europeans lurking in the shadows when I close my eyes, but know I see Joe and Jim in their best G-men get ups ready to take them down at a moments notice.

Okay, maybe I’ve seen “Men in Black” one time too many.

But seriously, it makes me feel a lot better to know that there are experts like them out there that not only have our backs, but want us to have the tools to protect ourselves as well.

Down with cybercriminals. Long live the Internet.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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