Watch out for 'Help! I'm stranded,' and other cyber-risks of the season

Before you leave campus for year-end events and celebrations, a word of advice: Keep alert for seasonal online security risks and scams that target places like mobile shopping apps and your email inbox.

Scams can occur any time of year, but some criminals try to exploit the distractions, commerce and work patterns of the holiday season. It pays to be cautious.

The phony email messages often sound urgent, or even alarming. "The 'Your email is over quota' and 'Help, I'\031m stranded overseas' scam emails were the two we saw most frequently during winter break last year," said Mike Waid, lead consultant for UC Davis' IT Express Computing Services Help Desk.

The "quota" email scam pretends to come from a concocted sender like "webmail team" or "Ucdavis email help desk," declares your account is full, and asks you to disclose your password. The "stranded" scam typically comes from "friends" (possibly using the name of a real person whose account was hacked) who say they were robbed and need you to send money quickly so they can get home.

The messages are frauds. Delete them. Even if you believe the message must be true, verify it with a source you choose and trust before responding. Treat every doubtful email you receive the same way, especially when it asks for personal data or money, or has an attachment you weren't expecting. After all, this year's most common email frauds might not be the same as last year's.

Mobile shopping and apps

A newer source of risk involves mobile online shopping and shopping apps. As more people shop via smartphones and tablets, the volume of attacks aimed at the devices is growing too, says a new 4-page white paper by the Center for Internet Security.

The report offers good advice. "I particularly like the end of the paper, where they talk about minimizing security risks," said Cheryl Washington, chief information security officer for UC Davis. The recommendations include using only apps you need; knowing the app's security practices and how it will use your data; disabling Bluetooth when you don't need it, and more.

If you need help or advice with campus technology or messages, call IT Express at 530-754-HELP (4357). It will close for the four official holidays but stay open on weekdays during the rest of the winter break, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Dec. 23, 26, 27 and 30. Normal hours resume on Jan. 2, 2014.

Using a little extra seasonal caution will improve your odds of enjoying a fraud-free holiday season.