Students like sophomore intended nursing major Paige Richardson are reliant on the internet daily. 

East Carolina University programs and organizations are keeping students informed about cybercrime and information security this October through Cybersecurity Awareness Month.

Associate Professor and Director of Security Studies Dr. Armin Krishnan said cybercrime can take many forms. Some cybercrimes are committed by people seeking financial gain, while others are state-sponsored attacks to disrupt or destroy networks of other nations, Krishnan said.

“Cybercrime usually has a financial incentive,” Krishnan said. “Cybercriminals will try to steal information of people in order to steal their identity and ultimately steal their money.”

Krishnan said everyone has been affected by information theft in one way or another. Major data breaches of large companies and websites happen each year, Krishnan said.

People should take all basic precautions to prevent information theft, Krishnan said. Using strong passwords, using licensed software, downloading security updates and using anti-virus software can significantly help keep online information safe, Krishnan said. She said people should know how cybercriminals will try to trick them into giving up personal information.

“I think three quarters of all cybercrimes are initiated by way of a phishing email,” Krishnan said. “I get them several times a day where they are trying to trick me into clicking on a link in the email or to open an attachment to ultimately give up information about myself.”

Chief Information Security Officer for ECU Dr. Mark D. Webster said the Cybersecurity Operations Center of Information Technology and Computing Services deals with “mafia-like” attempted cybercrimes each day. Webster said he and his team are always protecting sensitive university information.

There are three “keys to success” everyone should follow to protect their information, Webster said. These practices are strong passwords, multi-factor authentication and never reusing passwords, he said.

“I think if all of us were doing that, we would be in much better shape,” Webster said.

Much of cybercrime happens using ransomware, a type of malware which demands a ransom, usually threatening to leak private information or block access to it, Webster said.

A large-scale ransomware attack happened to the Greenville City Government in Spring 2019, Webster said, which caused the city to shut down its computers. No one should attempt to talk to the hacker if they are a victim of ransomware, Webster said.

Some aspects of cybercrime prevention are improving, Webster said, and recently there have been increases in cybercriminal arrests and stricter sentences for them. Earlier this year, Governor Roy Cooper established the State of North Carolina Joint Cybersecurity Task Force, which aids the state government, local governments and educational institutions in preventing cybersecurity incidents, he said.

“There’s a lot of allies that we have, right? I think that’s kind of one of the things that I’m thankful for,” Webster said.

Teaching Assistant Professor of Technology Systems Dr. Karla Thompson Varnell said she often gets phishing emails and forwards them to to be investigated. Other resources offered to students that may help information security are Microsoft 365 programs and Microsoft Intune, Varnell said.

When receiving emails, students should always verify any link or attachment as legitimate before opening them, Varnell said. Online shoppers should only enter payment information to websites that show a lock symbol next to the URL, meaning the website has a security system, Varnell said.

“The other thing is backing up your data,” Varnell said. “If there is a compromise, you can access your information. You can back it up to the cloud, or you can back it up to a removable device.”

Within the technology systems department, there are many opportunities for students to train and learn in the field, such as the ECU chapter of Information Systems Security Association, Varnell said.

The organization hosts several speakers throughout the year, including one in December who will provide training on Security+, the baseline certification for cybersecurity careers, Varnell said.

There has been an “explosion” of ransomware attacks in recent times, even on school systems and local governments, Varnell said. From government attacks to phishing scams, cybercrime is not slowing down, she said.

“It (cybercrime) can happen to anyone, even those of us that are trained the most,” Varnell said. “Even sometimes if you think you’re being careful, things can get bad.”

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