The Heartbleed bug has sent a shockwave through the Internet, as millions of users try to take stock of all of the accounts they've ever created and figure out how to change their passwords. Too bad their passwords are just the beginning of the problem.
Given the reach of Heartbleed and how long the bug existed, it's hard to even say how much data unscrupulous hackers could've gotten their hands on and, because of how it worked, we'll probably never know. Most people are changing their passwords on affected sites, sitting back and thinking (or hoping) they're safe. But now is when the work really begins for a large group of scammers. Since many websites ask you (or even require you) to use your email address as a username, that information is also vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug. Welcome to the beginning of phishing season.
Phishing (and the other "ishings," like vishing for phone scams and smishing for text scam) is a more time-consuming method of extracting the goods from you, but it is often more directly profitable. With information about where you have accounts and your email address, it's easy enough to send you a phishing email that looks like it's coming from Amazon but leads you to "update your credit card" with a site that is definitely not Amazon.
And it's not just your email address you need to worry about. You wouldn't believe how far phone scam artists can get with just a little information and the right tone of voice. Plus, while more and more people are texting, many newcomers to the technology haven't even considered the possibility that the link in the text that is supposedly from "your bank" or "your mobile company" leads you to a site that puts malware right under your thumbs.
If a phisher reeled in or bought information of yours -- like emails, addresses or phone numbers -- compromised in the Heartbleed hack, what should you watch for?
1. Any emails from companies imploring you to "click here" to change your password or update your account information.
Companies are learning not to do this precisely because it's such a common phishing and spear-phishing tactic. You should try to pre-empt any such email by going straight to the affected websites once they've implemented the Heartbleed fix. But if you don't, or didn't, and get worried by the email, take the extra few seconds to open up a new tab and (correctly) type the website's name into your browser.
2. Any phone call that promises to fix your problem but only if you give them passwords, account access or a credit card right now.
Phone phishing (or vishing) scammers rely on two things to succeed: your fear that you did something wrong or are in some sort of trouble; and their ability to project authority and the ability to fix it. If someone calls you and wants any information and won't allow you to get off the phone to call back the customer service number you find on your own, they aren't legit.
3. Any text message from an unknown number.
Don't open links and pictures or call any numbers you just don't recognize. Text-message phishers (known as smishers) use our own Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) to draw us in and take advantage of us.
4. Any calls from weird numbers, especially if your cellphone isn't widely known.
I assume that there are (mostly young) people who often get calls or texts from numbers they don't know after a night -- or several nights -- out. But for the rest of us, we probably hoard our cellphone numbers closer than most of the rest of our personal information, if only to avoid overage charges. So if you suddenly start getting calls from numbers you don't know, don't let the FOMO lead you down the wrong path. Let them leave a voice mail: just because you can pick up doesn't mean you have to.
Technology has made a lot of things more convenient, but it's also made the cleanup of a major security flaw like Heartbleed incredibly difficult. In the face of such a global issue, simply changing our passwords is like using caulk to seal a crack in the Hoover Dam. Bugs and breaches, hackers and phishers are the new norm and we can no longer assume that technology will bail us out or "it won't happen to me." It is critical that we change the way we think about security and realize that in the end that each of us must be more vigilant and aggressive in our cyber self-defense.