We hear a lot in the media and around the web about the evils of cyber-crime, and the inevitability of being hacked.
But aside from the obvious – like the grandstanding perpetrator of ransomware who greets you on start-up with a grinning skull, and exorbitant demands for BitCoin – how can you tell if you’ve recently (or not so recently) become the victim of an attack?
Warning Signs That You Have Been Hacked
These seven indicators may be taken as fairly solid evidence that your system or device has, in fact, been hacked.
1. You Can’t Log Into Your Online Accounts
One of the first things a hacker may do if they somehow manage to get a hold of your login credentials is to take over whichever account(s) of yours that they’ve managed to gain access to. If several of your online accounts share the same or a similar password, this could be the first stage in their taking over your entire online presence – and to do that, they’ll first log into your hacked account, then change the username and/or password to lock you out.
So finding yourself unable to log into one or more of your online accounts (assuming the website or service hasn’t gone out of business, itself) is never a good sign. But it need not be the end of the road.
If you contact the site administrators via email or their support desk, and explain the situation (along with proof of your own identity and existing account with them), most services today will have a standardized procedure for getting you back online and on track. Unfortunately, they’ve had lots of practice with this sort of thing.
2. Your Email Account Starts Dispensing Spam
If several of the contacts in your address book start complaining about receiving spammy email messages from a sender claiming to be you (and originating from your email account), this may be a reason to worry. If all of your contacts express this complaint, this should raise a red flag.
Malware developers often scour social media and other sources to find contact lists associated with email addresses, as a vector for spreading their joy to as wide a target base as possible. This might be the case in the first instance, when only some of your contacts receive bogus email messages.
Hijacking an entire address book speaks to actual compromise of your email account. On a corporate email server, this situation could point to an attempt at sabotaging enterprise operations by reducing network bandwidth and productivity. In any event, a thorough scan of your system should be run for possible malware infection.
3. Your Web Browser Sprouts Extra Toolbars
One common side-effect of a malware infection picked up online or through a tainted software download and installation is the sudden appearance of unwanted toolbars on your web browser application. Some installation routines actually specify this as an option in the preamble pages before clicking “Install” that you never bother to read – though many others simply use a toolbar as a convenient method for shipping malware onto your system in an innocuous-looking form.
These toolbars may be used as a vehicle for redirecting your searches to URLs that the hacker wants you to go to, or for other purposes.
You should attempt to remove them via your browser’s Settings menu. If that doesn’t work, try resetting the browser to its factory default configuration. Keeping your browser patched and up to date, and taking the time to actually read the Terms & Conditions, licensing agreement, and check boxes on your software installation pages will also help.
4. There’s A Bunch of Unknown New Software Installed
Tainted software installations (from downloaded packages or forcibly downloaded “drive by” malware) may also leave your system with a selection of unwanted and often malicious new software that you may not even be aware of.
This is an escalation from the old days of computer viruses (which were often designed to modify your existing software), to worms and Trojans that pose as legitimate programs – and can be shipped with installation packages under the noses of the vendor wrapping a set of applications together. Dissemination of this malware is often assisted by set-up routines that don’t give users the option of declining the “additional programs” offered by the install.
Your best bet is to use a process manager or similar utility that can display all of the installed software on your system, including programs scheduled to start automatically – with options to disable or remove them.
5. Your Mouse Pointer Starts Behaving Like a Real Rodent
Which is to say, erratically – and beyond your personal control. Not the little random jerks and wiggles that can occur due to vibrations, changing surfaces near optical diodes, or fluctuating voltage.
Here, there’ll be actual occasions when you’re nowhere near your device, and the cursor will start stealing around your desktop on its own. Clicking things. Making selections. And attempting to rob you blind, in one way or another.
This of course is evidence that an external party (read: Cyber-criminal or hacker) has managed to gain control of part or all of your system.
If you’ve spotted this activity early enough, you may be able to minimize the damage (which could include system compromise, or the manipulation of your various accounts) by recording the aberrant mouse behavior with an external camera before disconnecting from the network and calling in a forensic security expert. You should also move to a clean system, and go online to change the login credentials for all your critical accounts.
6. Your Financial Accounts Have Been or are Being Drained
Financial account credentials are typically obtained via malware infection – either a direct assault, or from a phishing exercise that leads to a downloaded malware attachment, or through data harvesting on bogus sites that phishing victims click through to.
Though some cyber-criminals who manage to gain login access to a victim’s financial accounts might play a long game, siphoning funds in dribs and drabs over an extended period so as to draw little attention, most will immediately go for the big score and steal all of your funds at once.
The key to becoming aware of either scenario is to set alerts (email and/or SMS text) with your various financial institutions that notify you each time a transaction occurs on your account. This will help you isolate and identify any transactions that you didn’t authorize yourself – or that aren’t initiated by the finance house in the form of taxes or standing charges.
Getting your money back may or may not be a straightforward matter. Most finance houses are willing to reimburse customers who have been victimized by hacking, but complications may arise if legal action is involved, and the court rules that you are responsible for ensuring your own safety.
7. Your System Defenses Won’t Work Anymore
Disabling your anti-virus or anti-malware software is one of the first things that a serious malware infection will do. Other targets on your system’s defenses include the Task Manager, Registry Editor, and any System Restore or Safe Mode rebooting tools you may have. If any of these applications goes down or starts behaving erratically for no reason, you should be seriously concerned.
Wiping your storage drive and restoring your system from scratch is pretty much your safest option in this case.
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