You can hardly look at tech news without seeing reports of viruses, Trojans, data breaches, ransomware, remote hacking, ATM skimmers and plenty of other threats to your money and information. According to the security company Kaspersky, 34.2 percent of computer users experienced at least one Web attack in 2015. More than 750,000 computers were infected with ransomware, with a steady increase every quarter.
Statistics like these can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, most of the threats break down to a few categories that you can guard against. Today, I’ll look at what are shaping up to be the biggest threats you'll need to worry about in 2016, and give you some tips for how to stay safe.
1. Data breaches
OK, this threat isn't a new one. It’s been at the top of everyone's watch list since the massive Target breach that exposed information on up to 110 million customers at the end of 2013. But the nature of this threat will be shifting in 2016.
Breaches at major retailers, where hackers steal payment information, will continue for the foreseeable future, and hotels are the target of choice at the moment. Hilton, Starwood and others experienced attacks in 2015. But as more retailers switch to point-of-sale terminals that work with the EMV chips in the latest credit and debit cards, and as people start using mobile payment systems, hackers should move on to easier targets. Find out how the chip in your new cards works to limit the danger of data breaches and how mobile payment on Apple and Android devices makes you safer.
The growing worry for 2016 is medical data breaches. In 2015, more than 100 million patient records were exposed, the majority coming from the Anthem Insurance hack early in the year. That trend is going to continue as hospitals, insurance providers and other medical services struggle to get a handle on digital security. To be fair, it's a problem they've never had to deal with before. But that's small comfort when your medical records are being sold on the black market.
The reason hackers will focus on medical information is money. The black market is flooded with stolen financial and personal information, which means your identity is selling for a few bucks, if even that. But medical information is in shorter supply, so hackers can sell it for more. Plus, most people have learned to keep an eye on their credit and bank statements for signs of fraud, but few people keep an eye on their medical insurance. This means hackers can get more use out of your information before they're discovered.
Besides medical data breaches, you're going to see breaches in other industries where you wouldn't expect to find them, such as the toy industry. A recent breach at VTech, a toy manufacturer, exposed information on more than 200,000 children, including their names, addresses and even photos. A data breach at Hello Kitty exposed information on 3.3 million users.
Newer high-tech toys that store information about kids and interact with them, like "Hello Barbie," could reveal a lot to hackers. So, before you buy a high-tech toy or let your child use an online site, see what information it asks for that could be stolen one day.
Ransomware encrypts your files so you can't open them without paying a ransom. Even the FBI is advising victims to pay if they want their files back. And just like data breaches, it isn't a new thing. It’s been a serious concern since a virus called CryptoLocker arrived at the end of 2013.
But ransomware is still a serious threat, and it’s getting worse every year, especially since hackers can now get it for free and modify it as creatively as they want.
And it isn't just a worry for individual computers. Ransomware can lock up files on a network, which means one infection can bring down an entire company. It's also possible to get it on smartphones and tablets via a malicious text, email or app.
Fortunately, it isn't all doom and gloom. Ransomware still needs you to install it. If you avoid falling for phishing emails with malicious links or downloads like this tricky one, you can keep ransomware off your machine.
You can also take the precaution of backing up your files regularly. That way, if they get locked, you can wipe your drive and restore them. Learn more steps to keeping ransomware off your gadgets.
3. Browser plug-ins
Britain's Ofcom recently found that adults spend an average of 20 hours a week online, most of that time in a Web browser. So it's no surprise that hackers are focusing their efforts there. If they can find a flaw in your browser, then they just need you to visit a malicious website to slip a virus onto your system. Learn how to spot a malicious site before it's too late.
2015 saw hackers target a number of browser weaknesses,but by far the worst was Adobe Flash. There were times it seemed to have an endless string of emergency patches, with at least three instances in July and four instances between the end of September and the beginning of November.
Firefox even blocked Flash for a time in July until a version came out that fixed the outstanding problems. Because many online ads use Flash, even legitimate sites could infect a computer if hackers got an ad network to run a malicious ad.
While companies are quickly moving away from Flash, Facebook for example just switched its video player to HTML5, Flash isn't going anywhere for a while. In fact, just like Java, which was the security nightmare before it, Flash/Animate could hang around on computers for years after people no longer need it. Learn why you might not need Flash as much as you think.
You can expect to see plenty more attacks against it this year. And hackers probably are already probing for the next big hole in browser security. Don't wait. Learn five steps to making your browser hacker-proof.
Keep an eye out
There are always new threats out there, and even we don't know which ones will explode. Keep an eye out for viruses called bootkits, which are incredibly hard to detect and remove and have started showing up in hacker toolkits. Find out how bootkits work.
Fortunately, right now they're delivered the same way as any other virus: through phishing emails, malicious downloads, etc. As long as you pay attention to what you click, you should be OK.
On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's
digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech
news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.