SALT LAKE CITY — Each year, online criminals scam and extort millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims each year by illegally accessing and stealing personal information from people in Utah and worldwide. Experts are warning Utahns to beware of cybercrooks targeting individuals and businesses in the Beehive State.
October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and the Utah Department of Public Safety is using the opportunity to warn the public and business owners to protect themselves from a potential hack or online crime.
The agency is working with local, state and federal partners to ensure Utahns are protected from cybercriminals, explained Sgt. Jeff Plank, a cybercrime investigator with the department.
He said the top cyberthreats in Utah include business email compromise, extortion, tech support and ransomware — a type of malicious software that threatens to publish the victim's data or perpetually block access to it unless a ransom is paid. Millions of dollars are lost each year in Utah to such scams, Plank said.
And while large corporations and institutions are major targets, he warned everyone needs to take the threat of cybercrime very seriously.
"We all need to work together," he said. "It's not just the responsibility of the important CEO of a tech company or the government's role to worry about cybercrime. Everybody has a role and responsibility, including the person who just has a smartphone."
He said there are some simple solutions that can prevent Utahns from becoming a victim of the ever-growing threat of cybercrime.
"Making sure that you are running regular virus scans for malware and spyware," he said. "(Make) sure that your computer programs and software on your computer are all up to date."
He warned to avoid "oversharing" online or on social media, protect your passwords, and beware of using public Wi-Fi networks.
Plank said scams can originate from anywhere in the world, so users should be vigilant at all times and stay away from online messages that may pitch sweepstakes, as well as inquiries about work-related business transactions. Scammers often spoof familiar email addresses to trick unsuspecting victims into giving sensitive information or making wire transfers that seem legitimate but turn out to be fake.
He said those who become victims of such fraud have a small window of time to report the crime to increase their chances of possibly catching the perpetrator. But even then, the chances of recovering their losses are slim, he added.
For a domestic transfer, he said the chances for recouping any money are much more difficult "if we're not informed within a day or two."
"A wire transfer that goes internationally is a lot easier to stop, surprisingly, than a domestic wire transfer," he said. "For an international wire transfer, we have three days to try to get that stopped and turned around."
Nationally, approximately $800 million was lost last year to cybercrime, the agency warned. In Utah, just over $5 million was lost, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Local law enforcement has developed strategies to track and deter cybercrime that has gained the attention of federal investigators who are battling daily attacks from around the globe. This week, FBI Director Christopher Wray called the Utah Department of Public Safety a model agency in the country for combating cybercrimes.
"Our Salt Lake field office and the Utah Department of Public Safety created a program to address cybercrime together, by integrating public safety personnel into our Salt Lake Joint Cyber Task Force," Wray said. "The model has worked so well in Salt Lake that we’re mirroring it in several other field offices."