Biggest digital security threats in 2013

Mike Wehner
FILE - This June 19, 2012 file photo shows Samsung’s new Galaxy S III phone, in New York. Millions of cell phones that use Google's Android operating system — including the popular Samsung Galaxy S III — are vulnerable to a digital bug that can disable the devices or wipe them clean of their data, including their contacts, music, photos and more. The security researcher who discovered the flaw urged consumers on Friday to update their phone software soon to protect themselves. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A new year is under way, and that means new and changing digital security threats that even casual technology users need to know about. If you surf the Web, engage in social networking, use cloud storage or carry a smartphone, there are a few things you need to know to be prepared for 2013.

Mobile malware is ramping up
As more and more individuals rely on smartphones for everyday communication, finance, and business needs, criminals have begun to focus on victimizing mobile users. What began in 2012 is expected to reach greater heights in 2013.

One fast-growing scam, called "Toll Fraud," is malware that uses the premium SMS or messaging service of a victim's phone to place huge charges on the victim's bill. By the time most people notice the invalid charge, the scammer has likely already made off with the cash. According to mobile security firm Lookout, 72 percent of the malware the company detected in 2012 was Toll Fraud, which is the highest it's ever been. Regularly checking your phone bill for what appear to be invalid charges is one way to guard against fraud. Alert your provider immediately if you notice something amiss.

Another red flag for mobile users in 2013 is the increasing prevalence of mobile spam. This can come in the form of text messages from unknown senders, emails or any other communication avenue on your smartphone. You should treat your smartphone just as you would your computer, and never click on links or emails from names you don't recognize. Don't reply to even the most innocent of text messages from unknown numbers, and never give out private information on-the-go unless you're 100 percent certain of the recipient.

Ransomware holds your PC hostage
Ransomware is just as frightening as it sounds—it's a type of malware that literally holds your data hostage, forcing you to pay in order to regain control over your computer—and it's becoming more common. It works by locking you out of your own computer, removing your ability to perform even basic tasks.

There are different versions of the scam, with some variants producing fake error messages telling you that you need to pay for a specific piece of software in order to "clean" your computer. One version even claims that the Windows operating system on your PC is invalid, demanding that you fork over cash for a new version. These are total farces designed to get you to pay for your own data.

"The best way to avoid ransomware is to make sure that your computer is running the most current version of your operating system and has updated antivirus software," notes Robert Siciliano of digital security company McAfee. "It’s also very important not to click on links in the body of an email or visit unfamiliar websites that may contain viruses that will attempt to inject them­selves through any security vulnerabilities in your browser."

Your Facebook page could be attacked
When it comes to obtaining your personal information without your knowledge, social networks are a gold mine for hackers. Facebook does its best to combat identity theft and privacy attacks, but that doesn't stop nefarious cybercriminals from waging an endless war on the website. If you've seen messages from friends advertising products and offering links for things like free samples, you've seen it firsthand.

These scams spread like a virus: When one person is infected, his or her account can infect others by unknowingly sharing links. When friends click on an infected message, the virus claims another host. In some cases, once an account is compromised, scammers can gain access to your personal information like email addresses, phone numbers and addresses.

Exercise caution when installing new apps on any social network. Be wary of fake login pages that could be used to obtain login information. The scammers are smart, and many have created fake login pages. Never respond to emails or messages from individuals claiming to be associated with the "Facebook Security Team," as they are almost certainly fake.

Mac users should be vigilant
The days of Mac users watching from afar as their Windows-owning counterparts sweat the threat of malware is coming to an end. Mac-based malware is very real, and attacks on Apple desktops and notebooks will continue to ramp up in 2013. The biggest risk factor when it comes to Macs isn't the number of malware programs floating around—that figure remains comparatively low—but rather the false sense of security that many longtime Apple devotees may have built up over the years.

"Despite well-entrenched perceptions, Macs are not immune to malware," according to a bulletin from security firm Kaspersky. "Of course, when compared with the torrent of malware targeting Windows, the volume of Mac-based malware is small. However, it has been growing steadily over the last two years; and it would be naïve of anyone using a Mac to imagine that they could not become the victim of cybercrime."

In 2012, a Trojan program called Flashback infected more than 700,000 Macs, making it one of the most widespread attacks on Apple ever. The Flashback hole has been plugged, but that doesn't mean a new attack isn't just around the corner.

“Flashback continues to be relevant because it demolished the myth of invulnerability surrounding the Mac and because it confirmed that massive outbreaks can indeed affect non-Windows platforms,” Kaspersky said.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Despite the scares and the challenges, online security is not so different from offline precautions. If you exercise common sense when browsing online and keep a close eye on links and attachments, chances are you're going to be just fine.

If you do find yourself being victimized, by either one of the scams listed above or a new threat, don't panic. Take steps to keep your identity safe and your information back up your information on an external hard drive. That way you can minimize or negate any damage that might be done.