An ounce of prevention protects against a pound of cyber headaches


The computer screen lights up and a warning tells you to call a toll-free number to stop your computer from being hacked! In a panic, you dial that number, and a friendly voice is there to help.

Except—They’re NOT there to help. It’s a conman on the line and he is NOT your friend.

Thieves have always been part of society, and today they’ve moved online and have gotten ever-more creative. Your best defense against these cyber criminals and their scams, viruses, and malware is preventive preparation and common sense.

What Can It Look Like?

“My screen lit up with a warning from Microsoft. It looked legitimate right down to the logo, so I dialed the number as instructed,” says Joe Gustafson, International Falls, who recently encountered an online scam. “The friendly guy spoke with me for 10 minutes.” Then the conversation took a turn. “He was asking questions that made me uncomfortable and I told him so.” That’s when the hacker knew he’d lost out and hung up.

Joe’s senses were correct and he never let the guy into his computer, which helped him avoid a bad situation. He immediately called his bank and other trusted sources for advice and help. Fortunately, he did not provide personal details, passwords, or account information to the hacker.

First & Foremost

The IRS, FBI, Microsoft, or your bank will NEVER call or email you asking for personal passwords, credit card, or financial details. If a friendly stranger wants to gain remote access to your computer—STOP! Hang up the phone and delete anything they may email to you.

Second, NEVER call a number that pops up on your screen with a warning (or message claiming you’ve won the lottery!). Delete emails or text messages suggesting anything similar. If your device freezes up and isn’t responding due to a pop-up message, shut it off or unplug it. Then contact a friend or trusted expert.

This also holds true if you suspect your computer has already been hacked. Shut it down immediately. Unplug the power cord if you can’t shut it down. Then contact someone you trust.


Hiring a technician to clean up a compromised device can get expensive—not including down time, loss of data, and hassle of sorting through it. “Prevention is key. I’d rather protect someone from harm than repair whatever can be fixed afterward,” says Jim Yount of Small Town Tech. “You want layers of defense – up-to-date software and hardware, a secure network, and good antivirus software. And none of that replaces the human factor…be skeptical and be wary of tricks hackers use.” Yount adds, “Bad actors are better than ever at tricking us, learn to avoid being the weak link in your own defense.”

Antivirus and malware protection software is available for free, and while paid subscriptions are usually better, some free options are effective and certainly better than no protection. Bitdefender Antivirus, Malwarebytes, and Avast One are three downloadable choices suggested by experts. Windows and Apple computers come with built-in malware protection that’s active by default, but it’s critical to keep them updated.

Remember our smart phones are also connected to the internet. The same precautions stand for using your phone when surfing the net, emailing, and texting.

No Shame

“Don’t be embarrassed if you’re hacked—it can happen to anyone of any age. However, contact your bank and credit card companies immediately if there’s an issue,” says Jaci Nagle, chair of the Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI).

Cases like Joe’s are all too familiar to KTI members, and they remind area residents to be careful. “You’ll want to change passwords on all accounts and notify any online businesses you use for shopping or video streaming.”

The internet is a powerful tool. It allows us access to a vast body of information and the ability to connect with billions of people around the globe. Just as if you were physically traveling the world, stay vigilant when touring the internet.

Advice for stopping hackers

1. Install security software on your computer.

Well-known companies offer plenty of free options. Set the software to update automatically so it can deal with any new security threats. While you’re at it, set your operating system and web browser to update automatically, too. If you’re unsure how, use the help function and search for “automatic updates”.

If you get a phone call, an email, a text, or a pop-up that says your computer has a virus or malware, do NOT buy their story or any security software they are selling.

2. Treat your financial information like cash.

If someone asks for financial information—such as your Social Security, credit card, or bank account numbers—ask why they need it and how they intend to protect it.

3. If you think you’ve found a good deal online but are unfamiliar with the seller – Dig deeper!

A quick internet search with the name of the company and terms “review” or “complaint” will tell you a lot.

Look for their physical address and phone number. Then you’ll know who to contact if there is a problem.

4. Never provide personal or financial details unless the website is secure.

Make sure you’re at a legitimate website that you intended to visit. Many fake websites exist that may look like your bank, social media platform, online store, or other site where you could mistakenly enter your personal or financial information. Only use links that you KNOW are good, never links in emails you don’t recognize. READ website addresses carefully – do they contain spelling errors or extra words? Most importantly: be skeptical and trust your instincts!

5. Make passwords count.

Passwords should be at least 10 characters and a mix of numbers, letters, and special characters.

Never use your name, your child’s name, favorite vacation spot, or birth dates.

Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. If stolen, hackers can use it to access your other accounts. Keep passwords in a secure place, and don’t share them with anyone. Password managers are a new tool that make it easier to create, keep track of, and use safe passwords. Most include features to help you improve your passwords or to let you know if a website has had a data breach that could include your current password.

Never keep your passwords in a document on your computer. That’s like hanging your keys on a hook outside your house!

6. Back up your computer files.

Copy important files to an external hard drive, like a thumb drive, on a regular basis. If there’s a problem with your computer, you won’t lose everything. Backups won’t keep bad actors from stealing your data, but they’ll make sure you have copies if the originals are lost or compromised.

Gerlach is the American Connection Corps AmeriCorps Member serving at Koochiching County.