Guest column

Houston banking exec shares tips for keeping online information secure amid coronavirus threats

You are more vulnerable to financial cyber threats in a crisis. Here are some tips for staying safe. Getty Images

While Houston residents are aware of the health and financial impacts of COVID-19, the threat to individual security due to the rise in online scams has only just begun.

Scammers have already started to prey on the unsuspecting victims who are now working, shopping and banking almost entirely online. A recent report by the Federal Trade Commission stated that due to the rise in online hacking and phishing scams, coronavirus-related frauds have already reached nearly $12 million in losses, impacting more than 15,000 Americans.

As individuals continue to become more and more dependent on technology during this extended time at home, it is important to be cautious and knowledgeable to avoid possible scams. Below are tips to consider when navigating coronavirus-related security threats.

Verify the URL

When dealing with financial matters, it is important to check the URL to ensure the site is secure and legitimate before clicking on a link provided by a third-party source or found within an email thread. Scan the link for misspellings and other abnormalities that appear to be out of place. It may also be helpful to visit the original website in a separate browser to compare the web addresses side by side. Illegitimate website links can lead to unsecure sites, viruses, and possible identity theft.

Check donation sources

Especially during this time, many Houstonians are donating to relief organizations working to fight the impacts of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, there are several faux fundraising campaigns claiming to support disaster relief, and the scammers behind these sites are preying on the goodwill of unsuspecting donors.

Consider supporting a charity that is well-known, transparent, and established, rather than a new organization with little history or information. Red flags may include sources requesting wire transfer information or a social security number, or charities applying pressure to donate immediately.

Guard financial information

It is especially important to guard financial information during this time to prevent identity theft. Many false stimulus check portals have surfaced online, encouraging visitors to provide personal information such as checking account details or credit card numbers.

The IRS encourages individuals to practice due-diligence and to be wary of details that may identify a scam. For example, noticing key words such as "Stimulus Check" or "Stimulus Payment" in place of the official term of economic impact payment.

If you have filed your taxes electronically, this payment will automatically be deposited into your bank account. For those who receive a check for the impact payment, it is important to remember that one of the best ways to protect financial assets is to be sure they are deposited in a reliable, federally insured bank account. Accounts are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, for each account ownership category, ensuring that your money is safe and protected.

Monitor accounts regularly

With the rise of online payments, it is important that individuals examine their accounts regularly to verify spending activity. While many assume that a scammer will take a large amount from a bank account, immediately triggering security functions and resulting in a text message to the account holder, this is not always the case.

Oftentimes, scammers will begin with smaller purchases, testing limits before stealing more. Additionally, it is important to check credit activity during this time to monitor for possible identity theft.

When it comes to making purchases and payments online, it is important to practice caution, even with sites that may appear to be trustworthy. By paying attention to the details and red flags that may signify a fraudulent site, individuals may be able to avoid online scams.

This is a time of great need. Unfortunately, it is also a time of great opportunity for criminals. As Houstonians respond, as they always do, be sure to protect yourself while you are helping our community.

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Jay Rogers is the chairman and CEO of IBC Bank.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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