What to Do If You’ve Been Hacked (And How to Prevent It)
The recent celebrity hacking incident and Home Depot data breach may have you worried about your online security, and rightly so. As we bring more aspects of our lives online — social, shopping, banking, storage — the risks of cyber crime increase. But there are ways you can better protect yourself.
In this guide, I’ll outline some steps you can take to safeguard your various Web accounts and devices. The recommendations come from several Internet security experts I spoke with, including Laura Iwan, senior vice president of programs at the Center for Internet Security; Sean Sullivan, security adviser at F-Secure (an antivirus and online security solution provider); and Timo Hiroven, senior researcher at F-Secure. There are also tips on how to detect if you’ve been hacked and what to do about it.
There are numerous precautions that you can take in order to protect yourself from hackers. One of the easiest and most simple ways is to create strong, unique passwords for every one of your accounts. Yet most people don’t.
While it’s tempting to use something like your child’s name and birthday because it’s easier to remember, creating a password with a random mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and characters will be harder to crack.
There are password apps like LastPass and 1Password that can help you with this by generating strong passcodes for each of your accounts. Plus, they’ll keep track of them all. When choosing such a program, Iwan recommends that you look for one that uses an industry-accepted standard for encryption like Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, and one that stores your passwords locally on your computer, rather than in the cloud.
Another safety measure you should take is to enable two-factor authentication when available. Two-factor authentication requires a user to provide an extra form of identification beyond just your login ID and password. This may be a special PIN code that’s sent to your phone, a physical token like a key fob, or your fingerprint.
Two-factor authentication isn’t impervious to attacks, but it does add an extra layer of protection. Many popular Web services, including Gmail, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter,Facebook and Dropbox offer two-factor authentication, so take the extra few minutes to turn it on.
Be suspicious of emails asking for personal information. A lot of hackers use a method called “phishing” that aims to gather sensitive data from you by sending an email that looks like it’s from a legitimate entity like your bank or credit card company. Some signs of a scam might be requests for immediate action, spelling and grammar mistakes, and suspicious links. Do not respond to these. Instead, call up the institution that supposedly sent the email and confirm if it’s legit or alert them to the issue.
Also, it should go without saying, but in general, don’t click on suspicious links or browse unsafe websites. Only install applications that come from trusted, well-known sources. And be sure that the operating system and apps on your computers and mobile devices are updated with the latest versions and patches.
Here are some more specific tips for different Internet activities:
Email and social accounts
- Think twice about what you post to your social networks, and monitor what others are posting about you. There’s a chance that hackers might use your social profile pages to gather personal information about you, and try to guess your password or answers to your secret question.
- Related to that, check your account’s privacy settings to make sure you’re only sharing information with your friends, and not with the public.
- Sullivan also recommends creating separate email addresses for your personal communication and everything else. For example, you might use a throwaway email address for news websites that make you register with a user name and password, or for retailers who want to send you coupons.
- If you back up your files to the cloud, remember that even though you delete them on your computer or mobile device, they’re still stored in your cloud account. To completely delete the file, you’ll also need to remove it from your backup cloud account.
- Don’t use public computers or public Wi-Fi networks to make any transactions. The machines might contain malicious software that can collect your credit card information, and criminals could also be monitoring public Wi-Fi networks for similar information.
- Don’t respond to pop-up windows.
- Secure your home Wi-Fi network using WPA-2 with AES encryption settings. There’s a good tutorial on how to do that here.
- Set your Web browser to auto-update to ensure that you’re running the most current version.
Know the signs
How do you know if you’ve been hacked? There may be some obvious signs. For example, you may start getting emails from your friends saying they received a strange message from your email address. Or your bank or credit card company might call you about some suspicious activity on your account. If you installed a mobile app with malware on your smartphone, you might find some unauthorized charges on your phone bill.
There are other, more subtle indicators. You may find new toolbars installed on your Web browser, or new software on your computer. Your computer may also start behaving strangely or slow to a crawl.
These are all signs that you might have been hacked.
I’ve been hacked. Now what?
If you have been hacked, the first thing you should do is reset your passwords. Iwan recommends starting with your email account, followed by your financial and other critical accounts. This is because password resets for all your other accounts are typically sent to your email.
If you’re locked out of your account or blocked from accessing it, many Web services have steps in place so you can get back in. For example, Facebook has a system where you can use a trusted source like a friend to take back your account. Search each service’s help section for specific instructions.
Speaking of friends, you should let your contacts know that you’ve been hacked, and report the issue to the site. Also, run a scan of your computer or mobile device using a trusted and up-to-date antivirus program.
In the case of identity theft, order a copy of your credit reports, and file an initial fraud alert with the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Contact your local police and report the identity theft, and request new cards from your bank and credit card companies. You should also continue to monitor your monthly statements for any more unusual activity.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of hack attacks and other cyber crimes. But by taking some safeguards and arming yourself with the knowledge of what actions to take in the event of an attack, you can help better protect yourself and minimize damage.