About Jon

Jon has worked in the tech industry since the pre-Bubble dotcom days and still has a 1200 Baud modem somewhere in his garage. When he's not advocating the use of strong passwords and being smart about social media, he's working on finding new ways to convince his wife that bacon is a vegetable which should be eaten with every meal.

Gift Card Balance Scams (And Other Ways To Ruin A Gift)

Gift Card Balance Scams (And Other Ways To Ruin A Gift)

Gift cards are a popular item any time during the year, but they’re especially so during the holiday season. Gift cards to Starbucks, Walmart, Olive Garden, and a host of other stores and restaurants make great stocking stuffers and help ease the anxiety for shopping for picky people on our shopping lists.

The only downside to gift cards (assuming you’re not one of those folks who think, as a present to someone, they’re too impersonal) is that the cards themselves are vulnerable to hacking or tampering that can result in a gift card with a zero balance. Cue the sad trombone.

  • Peek-A-Boo, I see you!

    The activation code on the back of a gift card can be seen by anyone in-store unless the card creator takes the time to create a concealed portion of the card. Often times this will result in a small area you have to scratch off with a key or a quarter to see the “secret key code”. If you’re buying a card for someone, check out the back of the card and make sure it has a secret code to help make it harder for thieves to steal the gift cards credit balance.

  • Can I get them digits?

    One inventive way crooks grab valid card numbers is when someone attempts to sell their card. If you ever want to sell a card for cash, don’t let the would-be buyer check the numbers to verify the balance unless you like handing the keys to the gift card kingdom over to them. With those numbers on the back of the card, there’s not much stopping them from using the card even without it physically in their hands.

  • Buy, buy, buy.

    When you purchase a gift card for yourself of someone else, ask the cashier to verify the balance on the card, and then call the help line on the back of the card to double-verify everything’s as it should be. Also keep the receipt in case there’s an issue later on so you can prove you legitimately purchased the card in the first place.

  • Use it or lose it.

    If you receive a gift card as a present, and I’m sure you will, don’t let it sit in your sock drawer for years before you finally remember to use it up. Some gift cards are charged a fee, and taken from the card balance, which will then lessen the amount you can use without the benefit of getting anything fun.

  • One in the hand… or in the email?

    There’s some contention over whether or not buying a gift card digitally is a safe idea or not. Personally I’ve never had an issue, but I know there are people who have. The one nice thing about a digital gift card is that there’s no physical card that someone can swipe the number off of, but then again if someone can tap into the recipients WiFi or email client then the card is as good as gone. It’s a tough call as to which is safer.

Remember this: Gift cards are just like cash. If you drop it, lose it, or give it away (whether on purpose or not), there’s nothing on it to let people know it’s yours. Keep them secret; keep them safe.

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

10 “Back To School” Tips To Protect Your Kids Online

10 “Back To School” Tips To Protect Your Kids Online

The first day of school has come and gone for most of us here in America, and for our kids it’s the final nail in the coffin for Summer. For parents it’s often a time to celebrate a few more hours of quiet in the house after months of neighbor kids coming over, debates over what to eat for lunch (much to my kids dismay, I still contend that a fist full of Jolly Ranchers is not a good meal), and listening to countless hours of video games being played in the living room or rough-housing in the back yard.

By now we’re all pretty much back into the swing of things for the school year and all of the changes associated with it, including PTA meetings, before-and-after-school practices, and trying to figure out what the kids will wear for school pictures. (My mother is probably still cranky I wore a “Boss Hogg For President” t-shirt for my 5th grade school pictures waaay back in the day)

And, of course, we’re all making sure our kids are getting enough time to study, which nowadays more than likely means time on the family computer. We’ve compiled some tips and links to help you keep their study time a safe time.

  1. Teach Your Kids Internet Security Basics:

    Show your kids how to check for secure sites, setting up a good password, and things of that nature. Good habits start now, and teaching your kids how to stay safe now will follow them the rest of their lives.

  2. Keep Your PC In An Open Space:

    Any child under the age of 18 should probably be made to use a computer that’s in an open space. Perhaps at the kitchen table on a laptop, or with a desktop in a living room… something like that. This way you can casually glance over and see if anything inappropriate is being said. (Or shown!)

  3. Limit Socializing On The Computer:

    Computers are great, but I like to use the phrase “Everything in moderation” in our house when I tell them they only have an hour or two for fun on the computer or iPad. The kids get to do their Instagraming, Facebooking and tweeting, but they don’t get so engulfed in social media that they become antisocial in real life.

  4. Scan New Devices For Malware Every Time They’re Used:

    As your kids get older, they’ll start bringing home more data CDs, USB drives, and the like. It’s bad enough when they download stuff, but inserting devices into your computer opens up a whole new dimension to possible malware infection. Be sure that your Internet security software scans any new device or drive automatically.

  5. Only Post Parent-Approved Information:

    Once something goes on the Internet, it’s pretty much there to stay, even if you delete it. Because once those pictures, posts, etc. are made live, people can screenshot them, pass them to others, or re-share them. Make sure your kids know this, and only post things they wouldn’t mind you, their grandma, or grandpa seeing.

  6. Re-check Your Privacy Settings:

    Software and services are always changing things up with their privacy settings. (Looking at you, Facebook) Stay on top of your game and periodically check for any changes that may affect your kids, and in particular their online accounts.

  7. Mind Your Manners:

    It’s nice to be nice, and nowhere is that more true than online. Sometimes it seems like most of the folks commenting on anything out there are trolls who have nothing better to do that try to bring someone else down. Make sure your kids mind their P’s and Q’s and help make the Internet a nicer place to visit.

  8. Sometimes It’s NOT Nice To Share:

    TMI, or “Too Much Information”, is a problem, especially on social media. It’s one thing to share what you had for dinner, or the picture of your cat that makes you laugh. It’s a whole other ballgame to get too detailed or explicit about, well, pretty much anything. Kids should know where the line between appropriate and inappropriate is, and that they shouldn’t cross it.

  9. And Sometimes It’s OK To Tattle:

    Cyberbullying is a big problem, and when it happens, kids should be empowered to tell any and every time it happens.

  10. Avoid The Noid Strangers:

    Last but not least is the parent favorite: Don’t talk to strangers. Even those online. If your kids don’t know someone, they shouldn’t be chatting with them. And if things start to go south during a conversation, they can just shut off the computer and walk away, or even get you or another adult to help intervene.

  11. BONUS: Turn Off Location-Based Information On Devices

    On any smartphone, tablet, or any other device that allows you to display your location, be sure to turn it OFF for kids! Letting your kids post from home while displaying their geo-location lets everyone know where they live as soon as they post. The same goes for Exif data in cameras: Find out how to turn geolocation off before it becomes an issue.

Like anything we do, good online habits are formed over years of doing the same things over and over. Start practicing them now with your kids and soon it’ll become second nature to you all.

Image courtesy of twix

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

Smartphone Pictures, Exif, and Personal Privacy

Smartphone Pictures, Exif, and Personal Privacy

They’re everywhere. In our homes. Offices. Schools. They contain sensitive information about us, identify our children, and have enough data about us to let criminals walk right into our homes. I’m talking, of course, about the digital photos on your smart phone.

An over-dramatization? Perhaps, but not by a lot. Recently there’s been a lot of chatter online about digital pictures and privacy. You’ve probably seen the Facebook status updates or buzz on other social media channels about how cell phone pictures can be a danger to your family’s safety. Snopes.com even posted about it recently and gave the topic a green light, which means after reviewing the facts they deem it true. The pictures you take with your smartphone can rat you out to the world.

The truth of the matter is that most devices with cameras these days (most notably smartphones) can add GPS or other location-aware data to your digital images, and can also add dates, times, and other information that could be used to track you down, much like they helped track down a high-profile antivirus software developer who was being sought after by authorities in late last year. This data is called “Exif” (Exchangeable image file format) and can be used to pinpoint your location when a photo was taken. Standalone digital cameras don’t often automatically add this information, but it’s best to check with the manufacturer to be certain.

A sample scenario of a potential privacy breach is as follows: Let’s say you take a picture of your kids at your home with your iPhone. If you don’t have your privacy settings set up in such a way that the Exif data is stripped, the latitude and longitude of where you took the picture is now embedded in the file. Upload that to your blog and now people can grab your image, parse out the Exif data, and find the approximate location of your home. It doesn’t take a tech genius to figure out that within a few hours anyone who saw that picture can be at your doorstep.

Fortunately it’s usually a pretty straightforward task to strip out Exif data (see “verexif.com“, “imageoptim.com” for Macs, or just do a Google search for “remove photo exif data” for more resources). To prevent geo-tagging information to be added to your images in smartphones in the first place, use this guide:

  • iOS 6:
    • Open Settings > Privacy > Location Services
    • Find the entry for Camera and swipe the button to the “OFF” position.
  • Android:
    • Because the User Interfaces for each Android device is different for each manufacturer, it’s not as easy to tell you how to turn off Exif geo-tagging. The settings are likely under the “Settings” icon, but the exact path may be different. You may need to hunt a bit for the option.
    • Note: There are apps that you can download which can help. Find out more details on this blog: “How to Scrub the EXIF Data from Photos on Your Android Phone Before Sharing Them“.

The up side to all of this is that certain social networks such as Facebook and Twitter proactively strip out Exif data, but that can change in the future and I personally wouldn’t trust it if you’re really concerned about data telling the world where your pictures were taken. Your best bet is to prevent the Exif geotagging from happening in the first place by being proactive about it with your devices.

Image courtesy of clanlife

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

What Is V.me by Visa?

What Is V.me by Visa?

Visa’s V.me aims to simplify online payments using your computer, tablet, or mobile phone. Announced in May of 2011 as a “digital wallet” (Visa press release) and rumored to be a replacement for the oft-misunderstood Verified by Visa (VbV) program. (For more about problems people have experienced with VbV, check out our blog post “Verified by Visa Scam: How to Spot the Fake“)

The Visa V.me service provides you with all the security and protection you’d normally expect from Visa without the need to carry a credit card around. There are multiple layers of security including fraud-monitoring, API’s to secure communication, and encrypted tokens using SHA-256 hash algorithms. The really nice thing about V.me for consumers is that we don’t have to worry about keeping (memorizing) our card data when we make a V.me transaction online.

Key points of V.me:

  • Beyond the Digital Wallet:

    Mobile integration will be a big factor (pay online or in-store), and seamless one-click payments will be a big piece of that puzzle.

  • Fixes the Verified By Visa “feel”:

    One of the complaints about Verified By Visa is that the program itself felt like a scam. The new V.me aims to work more like Amazon’s 1-Click.

  • Multiple Cards, Multiple Banks:

    V.me will allow users to register cards and banks outside of their Visa brethren. (Mastercard, American Express, etc.)

  • Rumor Has it:

    It’s said that Visa will be using V.me to support payments through QR codes, bar codes, and near-field communications (NFC).

Its been pretty quiet on the V.me front since late 2012, but a few press releases have popped up regarding adding new retailers who will accept V.me (currently over 50 financial institutions and 23 merchant partners like PacSun, 1-800-Flowers, and Buy.com), as well as a few promos that offer increased savings to anyone using V.me to make an online purchase. My thinking is that they’re still testing the waters, and soon we’ll see more partnerships, certainly before Black Friday this year. After that my guess is that V.me will make a bigger splash in the mainstream news and in the arsenal of accepted payment types by key eCommerce stakeholders.

Have you used VbV or V.me? What are your thoughts on either program?

Image courtesy of Visa

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

Internet Addiction Warning Signs

Internet Addiction Warning Signs

Much like Gutenberg did for the Bible (and knowledge in general) with his printing press, the Internet has commoditized information for the modern age. It’s an evolutionary step in communication, allowing just about anyone to quickly and easily spread their message to virtually everyone on Earth with a computer or mobile device. But with great power comes great responsibility, and perhaps most important is the responsibility we have to ourselves and our loved ones.

The rewards of going online are vast, and the risks are few, but one notable risk is the possibility of becoming addicted to the Internet. Much like alcohol, gambling, shopping, etc… surfing the Internet can be habit-forming for some, and its consequences can be just as damning. It’s because of that reason that it’s important to know how to spot the warning signs of Internet addiction in yourself or loved ones before it’s too late.

Signs of Internet Addiction
(Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, nor are we doctors. If you think you or a loved one has an addiction to the Internet, please seek professional help.)

  • A disruptive preoccupation with the Internet

    People who are addicted to the Internet tend to allow their time online to interrupt or damage time outside of the web. When a regular disregard for jobs, family, school, or other responsibilities are encountered so the person can be online, the potential for Internet addiction is high.

  • An increase in time online

    Addicts tend to fuel their own fires by spending increasing amounts of time online. And often times if they do try to reduce how much they’re on the web, they are unsuccessful in controlling their behavior and cutting back. Many times the person doesn’t even realize how long they’re on the Internet.

  • Irritability, anxiousness, and depression

    If the person becomes increasingly moody, “out of sorts”, or just doesn’t act like themselves when they’re away from the web, they could be exhibiting signs of addiction.

  • Lies and deceit

    Behavioral changes such as lying and covering up their tracks is a common tactic of the Internet addict. The person will attempt to conceal how much they’re online, or they may even try to change the subject and become irritated when pressed about their time online.

  • Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities

    The addiction can manifest itself in such a way that activities that were once pleasurable are now cast aside and neglected. This includes relationships, whether with friends or family. The Internet will become their primary focus.

In many cases an Internet addict is trying to feel better about some aspect of their life, and using the Internet is like a drug that helps a little (many times they will feel euphoric when they first go online), but the more they use it the less it helps, so it becomes a never-ending circle.

Additional Resources On Internet Addiction

Image courtesy of intelfreepress

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

What Is Cyberbullying? Defining A Modern Problem.

What Is Cyberbullying? Defining A Modern Problem.

Keeping kids safe from bullying has never been harder for parents, teachers, and families. If the physical world weren’t enough for us to keep up with, we’re now learning more every day about the importance of keeping our eyes and ears open for cyberbullying across our children’s email, smart phone, social media, and even school-related sites. It’s not just the Internet that’s talking about it — TV news shows, radio personalities, and magazines are increasingly talking about cyberbullying and how it affects everyone, especially kids. But what is it exactly, and what can be done to help prevent the bullying in the first place?

There are many definitions of cyberbullying out there to choose from, but they all break down to something like this:

Cyberbullying Definition
Cyberbullying is any form of intentional harassment that takes place online or by using electronic devices such as smartphones, personal computers, iPods, tablets, and other hand-held devices like the Kindle. It can happen through text messages, social media posts, online chat (IM‘s, or instant messaging), and on websites. (A famous example being Internet forums)

Nowadays, as many as 1 in 3 children say they’ve been cyberbullied (Source), and half of the kids who are cyberbullied never tell their parents (Source). It may come to some people as a surprise that girls are more likely to be an online bully than boys, (Source) but at the end of the day and regardless of whether it’s a boy or girl doing it — it’s wrong, it’s harmful, and it’s a growing problem among school-age children.

So what can parents, teachers, and other friends and family do to help combat the situation? Now that we have it defined, we can focus on the areas it happens. Keeping a watchful eye on Internet activity, games played on iPods and Kindles, who your kids are texting (and what they’re saying!), and in general keeping tabs on their electronic life is a fantastic first line of defense against cyberbullies. Just remember that it’s not about snooping or invading privacy. It’s about ensuring the health and well-being of your children and teaching them to use caution when interacting with anyone online.

Some of what cyberbullies pick up on are things that we put out there in the first place, so there are some things everyone (kids, parents… seriously, anyone at all) can do to help prevent bullying before it happens.

  • No Personally Identifiable Information:

    Be cautious about filling out online surveys, posting the answers to questionnaires on Facebook, or making any information available online or in a text that can give away your identity. Last names, home addresses, phone numbers, and even plans to go somewhere at a future time or day are all fodder for those who would try to bully.

  • Say No To Geo-Location:

    While geo-location tools are great for finding out where your family members are or getting yourself un-lost on a road trip, when used on social media networks and across other publicly viewable profiles it gets predators of all types that much closer to your and your kids. Resist the urge to add your location(s) to tweets and posts.

  • Speak Out Against Bullying:

    If you or your family see cyberbullying, regardless of how small or insignificant it may seem, say something. Too many children don’t speak up for themselves, and the damages to self-esteem can lead a child to depression, feeling nervous or scared, and in some well-publicized cases to suicide. Take bullying seriously and nip it in the bud as soon as you see it.

  • Stranger Danger:

    Only “friend” people online who you actually know. Close friends, family, etc. It’s so easy to let the wrong person into your online life, and once they’re in, it’s not always easy to get them out. Keeping a close eye on who you allow to follow you or see your private posts (such as the Friends Of Friends option on Facebook) can help reduce the chances of a bully smearing your profile with their vitriol.

  • Be Smart About What You Publish:

    Some things just aren’t meant to be shared online. Certain posts, and especially those with inappropriate material attached, can get you into hot water… fast. My rule of thumb is that I won’t post anything I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have my grandma show to all of her friends. Your mileage may vary with that one, but whatever you need to help curb your desire to post something embarrassing, use it!

If your child or someone you know does become the victim of a cyberbully, resist the temptation to delete the offending images, text, etc. The best thing to do is to take a screenshot of the material and use it against the bully by alerting the appropriate authorities, whether that’s the police, school staff, or the bully’s parents. For something minor or an isolated incident, a lesser solution may be appropriate, but if there are any serious threats of harm, do not hesitate contacting your local law enforcement. If you need more ideas about what to do, we’ve got a whole blog post on how to deal with a cyberbully.

Additional Resources:

Image courtesy of mdgovpics

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.