Due to the countless ways we connect digitally, the odds of getting hacked are right up there with the likelihood of catching a cold -- and like the common cold, you can increase or decrease your risk of exposure to germs that may make you miserable.
The goal of a particular hacker may be the creation of a spamming-for-dollars botnet or cracking a target that requires an enormous amount of computing power. It might be grabbing information for identity-related crimes. Increasingly, it involves ransomware that takes an organization's servers hostage until extortion demands are met.
There are so many phishing schemes floating in cyberspace, so many pitfalls set by hackers, the chances are good you've already come in contact with malware of one stripe or another. One recent estimate found that more than half of the infected files in cloud storage apps get shared.
Digital hygiene isn't much different from any other kind, but in the same way parents pass on common sense advice to wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season, it's crucial to learn about your various exposures and how to spot trouble when it happens.
The most important behavior needed here is restraint. If you're not sure about a file or a link, take a breath and listen to the cyber angel sitting on your shoulder who says, "Don't click."
When It Happens?
The best way to reduce the odds of falling for something is to accept the premise that that you will almost certainly get hacked -- in the event that for some reason beyond the ken of understanding you haven't been hacked already.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't do everything you can to prevent it, but the real thing to focus attention on is the telltale signs that a hack has already happened.
Identifying Social Media Nightmares
The most obvious sign that your social media account has been hacked is the appearance of posts that you didn't put there, whether they show up on your timeline or feed -- often spammy-looking advertisements for goods or services. You may also discover messages that you didn't send, or be unable to access your account after a hacker has changed the password and your recovery email and phone number.
If you log in to any of your social media accounts and find a random flood of new friends or there's suddenly a bunch of complete strangers you are now following that you neither confirmed nor requested, you've been hacked and need to take action.
Related, though not hacking per se, is account-cloning. This is what happens when a hacker creates a timeline that looks just like yours but isn't -- a copy made of stolen photos and information from your timeline to trick your friends into providing personal information that can (and most likely will) be used to turn a profit.
What To Do: On Facebook, regularly monitor the active sessions on your account. If you see logins from strange locations or posts that you don't recognize on any social media account, assume there's a problem and immediately change your password (not to "password" or 1234567). If you see that someone has cloned your timeline, follow the instructions on Facebook's Help Community site. Instagram users should go to its Help Center. And Twitter followers of the non-Carlos Danger variety -- i.e., those who've actually been hacked -- can go to its Help Center as well.
Keeping Your PCs Clean
If you are running older versions of software with known security issues or have failed to upgrade your anti-virus software, the odds are better than ever that your machine has been infected with some form of malware.
Signs that your PC has been compromised are many and various, but one of the key ways a compromise manifests itself is slowness. Nothing else is going on (no programs are running), but your computer takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R to accomplish the simplest tasks. Other signs: Toolbars, programs and pop-ups appear; there are new programs in Windows Start Up, you can't shut down or your anti-virus program is disabled.
What To Do: Most everything you need to know to remove malware from your PC can be found online. The bottom line: Do something. Don't assume that because your computer is working more or less that everything is okay.
Safeguarding Your Mac
Although it's not as common, iOS can, and does, get hacked. The signs are similar: Your machine is moving glacially on the simplest tasks, strange pop-ups appear. You may discover fake anti-virus programs.
What to Do: Visit the Apple Genius bar, but bear in mind, many Anti-Virus programs can be the culprit as they sometimes require serious processing power. Regardless, your destination is the same since the experts at the Genius Bar will be able to determine the issue quickly and most likely solve your problem that day.
The indications that your iCloud account has been compromised are numerous. You may start receiving emails about password changes or attempts to login in to your iCloud account. If you use two-factor authentication, you may get requests for your token or security code even though you didn't initiate the process.
While you may think it's a glitch, it probably isn't. Ignore these emails at your peril. Chances are good that it's either a hacker or your kid. Either way, you need to take action.
Watch out for downloads and iTunes purchases that you don't recognize, and if your phone no longer works correctly or does strange things, you may well be having a problem.
What To Do: Change passwords, and if that doesn't do the trick, head over to the nearest Genius Bar.
Smart Email Security
It's relatively easy to hack an email account, so the first rule is to stay vigilant. Check your email regularly and also monitor your Sent file. That may give you the first indication of a problem.
When it comes to Gmail in particular, it's easy to see if you are having an issue. To be sure, go to Last Account Activity at the bottom of your Gmail Inbox. This will show you the last 10 logins. If you don't recognize something there, you may have a hacker in your stuff.
Next, email forwarding can be an issue because no one ever checks it, but hackers use it all the time. You can make sure your email is not being forwarded by going to settings and then to the Forwarding and Pop/IMAP tab. POP/IMAP is another way a hacker can tap into your email, since the feature allows email to appear on any device that has the password. Best to disable this feature if you're not using it.
At the end of the day, getting hacked is becoming almost as commonplace as breathing, but it needn't be an extinction-level event. That said, if you download ransomware, it can be costly. (If you ever have reason to believe you were hacked, it's a good idea to monitor your credit for signs of identity theft. You can view a free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
There is no magic wand and impenetrable moat that keeps the bad guys out. You must be thoughtful, deliberative and cautious in order to avoid the tricks and traps that are laying in wait behind a cute baby panda video.