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Why you might be vulnerable to hackers (but don't know it)

Why you might be vulnerable to hackers (but don't know it)

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Some of the more sophisticated methods of identity theft involve the vulnerabilities inherent in the technologies we use to log in.

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From Facebook to bank accounts, logging in has become somewhat a way of life for internet users. Consequently, so is the threat of identity theft.

Using a strong password is usually enough to beat back attempted break-ins, but hackers have become more and more sophisticated in their approach. Last week, my colleague Christie Nicholson outlined seven methods one hacker used to gain access to emails and other private accounts, some of which included exhaustive efforts such as mining clues from a person's blog, online legal records and information gleaned from search engines. And as if that wasn't creepy enough, Simson Garfunkel over at Technology Review recently discussed a few more tricks that involve the vulnerabilities inherent in the technologies we use to sign on.

Here's a summary:

  • Malware that lurks inside your computer. Antivirus programs can detect and remove password-stealing viruses but some bugs can remain undetected for weeks or months after initially infecting the host.
  • The giant loophole that is Windows XP. It wasn't until Microsoft released Windows 7 that the popular operating system was fortified with advanced security features. Not upgrading means you're that much more at risk.
  • Public computers. There's no way of telling whether an internet cafe are free of viruses or keylogging programs. And many run on Windows XP.
  • Open Wi-Fi that provides open access for crooks. Wireless access points that aren't encrypted means anyone using the same network can 'sniff' out your password information.
  • Sneaky website re-directs known as man-in-the-middle-attacks. The deception in these kinds of attacks is where the hacker eavesdrops on users by inserting himself in between the communication channels without the users knowing. This method can even get around SSL encryption.

Terrifying right? So what's a hapless potential victim to do to avoid becoming a statistic? Currently, the best way to counter these opportunists is to have several barriers of defense.

Here are few suggestions that should be standard for anyone who has an email address:

  • Install a good anti-virus program. For instance, Malware Bytes is a popular seek-and-destroy software.
  • For PC users, Upgrade to Windows 7. The 64-bit version has the most security features.
  • Change your settings to ensure the channel is encrypted when you log. A secure site should begin with https://

The less-than-obvious tools:

  • Use two-step verification. Some companies like Google offer users an addition layer of protection requiring account holders to enter a verification key sent to a cell phone. You can activate this by going to the Google help page.
  • Backup authentication. Many companies also have additional screening options such as listing alternative e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, and answering "secret questions."
  • Turn on account alerts. Banking institutions have account features that allow you to be alerted via text or email whenever funds are being withdrawn or for other forms of account activity. And Facebook can also send you a SMS message whenever someone logs in with a different browser.
  • Create backups. Email clients like Microsoft Outlook create offline copies of all your correspondence, which is helpful in the case when your account is compromised.

(via Technology Review)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure