Hackers 101: What They Are and How to Stay Safe

Computer hacking is the illegal and unethical access of other people’s computers, devices, or websites, done with the purpose of gaining personal information. Once a hacker gains this information, they can use it to commit additional crimes, such as theft. With the rise in electronic connectivity, hacking is a continual threat to anyone who uses the Internet on a computer or on a mobile device. Understanding what hacking is, what information hackers want, and how to protect your information and computer systems from hackers can help you to protect yourself from this threat.

What Is Hacking?

Hacking can occur in a couple of different ways. A hacker may work to access other people’s computers or mobile devices by installing rogue programs called spyware. These programs access files on a computer’s system and send information from the computer to another computer, often without even being detected. A hacker might install this type of program by sending an email that contains a link. When someone clicks the link, they navigate to a website that automatically downloads the spyware onto the computer system. Sometimes, hackers send attachments that contain spyware also. If a user downloads the attachment onto a computer, the spyware is instantly placed onto the computer system. Some spyware also has the capability of recording keystrokes entered onto a computer. If a user enters passwords or sensitive information such as bank account numbers or a Social Security number, the keylogger records the keystrokes and sends them to a remote computer. Spyware might also record screenshots of sensitive information to use elsewhere. Hackers who infiltrate websites may succeed in capturing sensitive information stored on the websites, such as customers’ financial information or passwords.

Information Hackers Want

Hackers are interested in gathering a variety of details about their victims. Banking and financial information is of great interest to hackers, so it’s vital to protect this information carefully. Hackers also would like to gather Social Security numbers and other personal information about their victims. Some of the information people enter on social media websites and elsewhere on the Internet is also of interest to hackers. Criminals could use information such as a person’s mother’s maiden name and their city of birth to successfully answer bank security questions and gain access to an account. Even photos uploaded to the Internet can be a risk because a hacker could glean personal information from viewing these images.

Protection Against Hacking

Consumers can take specific steps to protect themselves from hackers. Using strong passwords and user names is vital for websites and accounts. Always choose a password that includes a combination of both upper- and lower-case letters, symbols, and numbers to make it more difficult for a hacker to guess your passwords. Never use obvious passwords such as a birth date, family name, or address. Never use the same password for all of your accounts, since if a hacker infiltrates one account, they could easily infiltrate all of your accounts. It’s also smart to change passwords frequently. Instead of accessing your sensitive accounts and information online from any computer or mobile device, consider using one computer only for these important activities. Do not use a public computer or a public hotspot to conduct sensitive business such as bank transactions or purchases. This lessens the chances of a hacker gaining access to your information. Always log out of your online accounts when you finish using them. Keep your computer and mobile device software up to date; manufacturers continually upgrade their software to make it more secure. Install antivirus firewalls and software to protect against hackers and to remove any spyware you may have on your computer. Remember to check your accounts frequently so you’ll notice any signs of fraud. Never click links that arrive in an email. Always delete all email attachments without opening them unless you are certain that the attachment is free of viruses. Never provide personal information to someone who calls you asking for these details. And if you receive a suspicious email purporting to be from your financial institution, always contact your bank to inquire about it before you respond to the message.

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