Being afraid of the wrong thing and how to know

Everyone needs to know about Snopes.com.

A woman I used to work with contacted me via Facebook messenger a few days ago. She was passing along a warning regarding a video containing a virus that formats your phone. The video was called “Dance of the Pope” and the notification included the suggestion to forward “to as many as you can”.

I hadn’t heard of this virus so did some searching right away before sending any warnings. As some of you may know, this is a hoax. Snopes reported it as such a few years ago. And a little more searching turned up .uk websites with articles dated this year that reported the hoax.

I thanked my friend for the warning and let her know that what I had found identified the message as a hoax. I also let her know about using the Snopes website to check for hoaxes and provided her with the link as well as links to some of the .uk articles I had found.

The unfortunate truth is people have tools in their hands that they know can cause pain or even economic loss if the tool is lost to them. What too few people know is where to get accurate information about risks and how to respond. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there’s only Snopes. And unfortunately, not enough people know about it.

If you read this, pass it on. Use Snopes to check for hoaxes.

Of course, malware writers are smart. And always devising new ways to infect systems. One day it may be true that “Dance of the Pope” is weaponized so if it is opened it does cause damage.

When that day comes the usual guidance of don’t open things you aren’t expecting will need to be a mantra everyone follows. And there will be an even greater need to know where and how to get reliable information to protect your digital life.

More phishing…

There’s more than one way to hook a fish.

Lets say you’ve become comfortable in your ability to recognize phishing email. You’re able to spot the strange “From” address hidden behind the reassuring “Billing Department” or “Customer Service” label that’s been applied. And even if that looks like it might be legit you know how to hover over links in the email and recognize something that says it came from Amazon should have amazon.com/ as the last part of the web address that comes before that very first single forward slash, “/”.

A business web address should always be https://businessname.com/maybemore or https://www.businessname.com/maybemore or https://businessname.org/maybemore and so on. The critical part of the address that tells you where the link will take you is between the paired // and the very first single /.

What do you do when everything looks legit? The “From:” doesn’t look strange, the subject isn’t alarming.

The message itself doesn’t try and make you panic. You can see the full email address and it looks legit. There’s no business website listed in the message but the part of the email address after the @ looks legit. And if you put the part after the @ into your web browser it does go to a legit website, in this case “equitybrands.com”.

Stop right now! There’s no contact info provided in the message. No corporate website identified. No contact phone or email provided. And there’s no info what this is about. Did you buy something and there’s a payment issue, forget to return something, detail about a pending refund…? There’s just nothing except a big blue “View File” button.

In case you can’t resist taking a peek at the “Payment doc.excel” file I did it for you.

It isn’t a regular Excel file because the last part of the file name would be .xls or .xlsx. Sorry but you do need to know that. Ignoring all this I clicked the “View File” button. It got me to the screen below.

If you haven’t got suspicious yet you should turn and run now.

There’s no identifying information for the company.

Why are you being asked for your email? It came to your email. Why is it asking for that now?

What password do you need to enter? Since your email is asked for it seems like a reasonable password would be your email password. Don’t!! Your email password is to get into YOUR email. Nobody else needs that.

Then there’s a conflicting statement at the bottom of this web page. See just below the “Submit” button? It says “Never submit passwords through Google Forms.” That’s because this phishing message is bringing you to a Google Form to collect your email and password. The criminal can’t prevent Google from showing you that warning on a Google Form but they’re hoping you won’t see it or will ignore it.

In summary, even if everything looks legit, if you’re asked to enter your email and password somewhere and you got there by clicking a link in an email DON’T DO IT!

Email and password are for you to get into your accounts. Don’t give them up at a website you got to by an email link.

Always go to the website your usual way and login. Then check your account to see if anything is needed.

If it isn’t a website you remember having an account at do not, do not, do not provide credentials to login. Call the business and ask what’s up!

Fake news!

Be informed, not misinformed.

Fake news has been a problem since the Internet (before actually, but much easier to recognize then). With the rise of social media it has become a serious problem that is influencing large numbers of people with false and misleading information.

With a presidential election in the offing and intelligence services currently warning about active foreign interference, now would seem a good time to brush up on identifying fake news. Prevent oneself from going off half cocked on someone or making a choice based on a false story.

I found an NPR article, With An Election On The Horizon, Older Adults Get Help Spotting Fake News, and training about the problem.

And although the article’s title includes the words “Older Adults” the lessons are for everyone. There are many adults who need to be able to recognize and acknowledge fake news. Not only “Older Adults”.

Definitely good resources to be familiar with and to share. Please spread far and wide.

Phishing, some examples

A guide to spotting email that is meant to deceive you.

Recently I received a number of phishing emails and shared some with family and friends so they could see examples and hopefully avoid any they might get.

After doing that I decided it would be good to share here too. And I went a bit further and made some (admittedly crude) videos to spotlight some of the indicators that an email is phishing.

The videos are posted on YouTube and I’ve embedded them here.

These were my first attempts at creating videos with effects and titles. Please try not to be critical of the production quality and instead focus on the information provided. You’ll find it useful if you do.

For those of you who might look and say, “They’re too tiny. I can’t see anything.”, after starting the video click in the lower right hand corner of the video window. It will enlarge the video.

This one was meant to get the victim to open an attachment. I may make a post and video of what happens if the attachment is opened. For the time being know that the video has tips to help identify it as phishing so we know better than to try and open the attachment.

This one claims there’s a problem with your Apple ID and has links that connect with a counterfeit Apple website. If you were to click the links and complete the forms you’d be giving away your Apple ID login information. Again there’s titles and effects to help identify the tells that make it apparent this isn’t from Apple.

Certified Information Systems Security Professional, CISSP

Security. Human factors are always important.

I hold a CISSP certification. Information security is something I’ve found intriguing since I first started my technology career. One of the first user trainings I developed was around the time of the “I love you” malware that struck via a deceptive email attachment. And to this day email continues to be a vector for compromising systems. Or actually I should say, email account holders continue to be a vector for attacking systems.

My office at the time of “I love you” wasn’t struck by it but we would have been except for our mail system. Everyone in the business, about 160 people at the time, had gotten the system security training. And a special alert had gone out after the training warning of “I love you”. By and large the people in the company were well educated professionals with uncommonly high expectations around privacy and confidentiality. Our work was providing counseling and permanency for youth and families involved with various states’ child and family services departments.

What I mean to say is the staff of the organization all understood and practiced privacy and confidentiality and so were an interested and engaged audience for the security training.

With the above as background, this is the story of “I love you” in my office.

One day the Executive Director’s Administrative Assistant called me and said, “Alan, I think I’ve done something I shouldn’t have.” She explained she had gotten an email from the building’s manager with an “I love you” attachment. The man was someone she dealt with often and was on good terms with. She was married and was a bit upset by getting an email with such a bold attachment. She was also intrigued wondering why he would send it to her and what message might be inside.

She didn’t delete the email immediately but kept it and wondered what message it might contain. Finally she opened the email and attempted to open the attachment. Nothing happened.

Our mail system was Lotus Notes client and server. The malware relied on Visual Basic Scripting in Microsoft Outlook and so was unable to propagate in our environment.

This is a case where a knowledgeable person with a commitment to privacy and confidentiality and who had gotten security training as well as read the follow up warnings about “I love you” nearly caused a security incident because of curiosity! The only reason there was no incident was because of a technical feature of our environment.

She realized something was wrong when there was no message to see. And then she relied on her training, called me, and confessed to maybe doing something wrong.

This is a lesson that’s stayed with me. You can have good people and good training but good technical measures are still needed to back them up. People will occasionally do things they suspect might not be in their best interest because of some other overriding impulse, like curiosity.

And this brings me to something else, earning CPE (Continuing Professional Education) credits to keep my CISSP current. I generally enjoy the briefings and learn many interesting things while earning CPEs. However I do struggle sometimes because it is difficult at times to find CPE courses that are not too strongly vendor centric. My preference is for training that is less about the knobs and switches of a particular technology and more about the ideas behind threats and countermeasures.

I was really pleased to get a mailing from (ISC)2 the other day. It introduced courses that are free for members that providing training and CPEs. Much of the training looks to be very relevant to my interests and I’m very excited to get started!

Courses like:

  • Techniques for Malware Analysis
  • Web Appliction Penetration Testing
  • Gaining Support for Your Security Program
  • Introduction to NIST Cybersecurity Framework

…and others are all about topics that I expect to be quite enjoyable.

I also will be producing another post with some examples of phishing attacks I’ve received. Some that were quite good and nearly motivated me to reveal credentials.

Certbot automatic authentication

Enable certificate auto renew after a manual renew.

I have a number of websites run from my own web server, like this one. Something I set up to experiment with web technologies and gain some insight into how things work.

One of the things I did was setup HTTPS for the websites once I found about about EFF‘s LetsEncrypt service. I wanted to see if I could provide secure connections to my sites even if they’re only for browsing.

I was able to get HTTPS working for my sites and have the certificates renew automatically. Then I changed ISPs. With TWC, now Spectrum, there was never a problem with the automated renewals. With Optimum the renewals didn’t work.

Emails alerting me to certificate expiration were my first indication there was a problem.

The logs indicated that files on my server couldn’t be manipulated to confirm my control of the website. Plus, entering the website address as boba.org or http://boba.org no longer connected to the website (externally, on the local network it still worked). Connection to any of my hosted sites now required prefixing https:// to the name. Automatic translation from http to https no longer worked.

After talking, chatting online actually, with Optimum they told me yup, that’s just the way it works. “We block port 80 to protect you” and “you can’t unblock it”.

Panic! How to maintain my certificates so https continues working? Fortunately certbot offers a manual option that requires updating DNS TXT records. It’s slow and cumbersome and NOT suitable for long term maintenance of even one certificate containing one domain but it works.

Sixty days pass and the certificate expiration emails start again. This time I determined that I’d speak to a person at Optimum and not use the chat. After some time with my Optimum support tech, and after she escalated to a supervisor, I was told there is in fact a way to open port 80. And it is a setting available to me via my account login. So I opened port 80 and thought all set now, renewals will happen automatically.

Not so. I got more certificate expiration warning emails. What to do? All the automated renewal tests I tried indicated a problem with a plugin. I read the certbot documentation, did searches for the error and tried to find a solution that was applied to the problem I had. I didn’t find it. But I did get a clue from a post that said once a manual certification has been done that setting needs to be removed before automated renewal will work again.

After more digging I discovered the certificate config files in /etc/letsencrypt/renewal. In them were two variables that seemed likely to be related to the auto renew problem. They were authenticator = and pref_challs =. The settings were manual and dns-01 respectively.

I never touched these files. It turns out doing manual renewal with DNS TXT records using the command sudo certbot certonly --manual --preferred-challenges dns --cert-name <name> -d <name1>,<name2>,etc just changes the config files in the background. Attempting auto renew later doesn’t work because the settings in the config files have now been changed to authenticator = manual and pref_challs = dns-01.

There was no help I could find that explicitly listed the acceptable values for these variables. And I didn’t have copies of these files from before the changes. After digging around in the help for a while I decided it was likely they should be authenticator = apache and pref_challs = http-01.

I made the change for one certificate and tested auto renew. Eureka, it worked!!

Next I changed the config files for all the certificates and did a test to see if it worked.

$ sudo certbot renew --dry-run
** DRY RUN: simulating 'certbot renew' close to cert expiry
** (The test certificates below have not been saved.)
Congratulations, all renewals succeeded. The following certs have been renewed:
/etc/letsencrypt/live/alanboba.net/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/andrewboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/danielboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/kevinkellypouredfoundations.com/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.anhnguyen.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.conorboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.mainguyen.org/fullchain.pem (success)
** DRY RUN: simulating 'certbot renew' close to cert expiry
** (The test certificates above have not been saved.)

It worked. All my certificates will again auto renew.

This website was created after the problems began. So I didn’t even attempt to make it https. Now that I’ve figured out how to have my certs auto renew again I’ll be converting this site over to https too.



Passwords: Make it safe

Got hacked, locked out of files and accounts? It happens to lots and lots of people.

A few people are actual selected targets. A small minority I believe. The others? They’re the “catch” the result of cyber criminals casting a wide net with their tools.

When I talk with people about safe passwords they often say things like “I can’t remember so many” or “It’s too hard to come up with good memorable passwords” and often “I just don’t understand how to manage it”.

To them I say a password manager is your friend and protector. Refer to this article, Why You Shouldn’t Use Your Web Browser’s Password Manager, for useful information about password managers.

A few things that I see a bit differently than the article.

First, I disagree with the basic premise. In my experience the best way for people to start doing something new is to start from where they’re already at.

So if you want to use the password manager in your web browser then go ahead. You must stick to using that browser. If you already do that why not stick with it?

Second, I disagree that the open source password managers mentioned are more complex than the password managers mentioned, especially if you already store files on the cloud with Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.

And I see an advantage for the separate password manager. If you use a password manager like KeepassX and the file sharing site gets hacked you’re still the only one with the password database’s password. If your online password manager site is hacked then all your passwords are compromised.

In the case of using your browser or something like LastPass to manage your passwords an account must be created with the provider of the password management service. Essentially only one layer of protection.

If KeepassX or something similar is used there’s two layers. The file sharing website and the password database itself.

Multi layer protection is where it’s at baby! (said in Austin Powers voice)

The most important part of all this is to set up different complex passwords for each site you use.

Use your browser’s password manager, an external service like LastPass or a separate password manager like KeepassX combined with an online file storage service to create unique complex passwords for each site you use and you’ve improved your security by leaps and bounds.