Most troubling was that the hacker had a variation of a password I used long ago. It wasn't correct, but close enough to get my attention.
Every day, we hear some horror story in the news about an individual or company whose computer system or personal data gets hacked or compromised in some way. Often, the victim is asked to pay a ransom to regain access to information or prevent some damaging or scandalous thing from being made public.
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These scams come in many forms. One of the latest involves a message from a supposed hacker who claims to have hijacked your computer’s webcam and has made a video of you watching pornography. The hacker also claims to know the porn sites you visited along with having all of your email contacts. The hacker threatens to release to your contacts the video and and a list of the porn sites you’ve visited, unless you pay a ransom — often demanded in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The other important thing is that the hacker seemingly has a legitimate password and/or phone number connected to your email address.
People generally don’t give these scams much thought until it happens to them, Recently, I received just such an email threat. In this instance, the “sextortionist” wanted me to pay $6,000 in Bitcoin, as he claimed to have a video of me viewing porn from an infected website and planned to release the video of me unless I ponied up the money.
My alleged porn viewing came as quite the surprise to me, since I’ve never visited a porn site in my life. The more troubling thing was the fact that the hacker had a variation of one of my passwords from long ago. While it was not correct, it was close enough to get my attention.
I say this casting no judgement on anyone, but given that porn sites are said to attract more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined, I can only imagine the fear and panic felt by individuals who actually have visited porn sites — and then received a threat similar to the one I received.
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After contacting police and the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office about the episode, I gave considerable thought to security and what steps people might take to protect themselves in the digital world.
According to an article by security expert Brian Krebs at krebsonsecuirity.com, victims of this scam say the hacked passwords are nearly a decade old and had previously been used on accounts tied to the victim’s email address. Krebs speculates that the scammers obtained usernames and passwords from one of several data breaches at popular websites in recent years, since it matches the same people who’ve had their information compromised. He believes this scam will get more refined as the hackers can access more current and relevant information. This could make their threats seem all the more legitimate.
So, what can we do to protect ourselves in the face of such threats? According to the FBI, one basic rule is not to open attachments or click on links from people you do not know. Even with people you do know, the FBI says you should be cautious with your clicks, as things can get hijacked.
Another step the FBI suggests to protect yourself is to turn off your webcam and cover the lens with something when it is not in use. And while we’re on the topic of security, don’t create a password that’s easy to connect back to you — such as a birth date, street name, business name, family names, group hobbies, favorite teams, or other things that can be found out about you easily. Although we want to be able to remember our passwords, we have to be creative. How many have used “password” as a password?
Finally, never send compromising pictures or videos of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are. We know how that can end.
If you still receive threats from a hacker or scammer, file a local police report, and also notify the FBI at a toll-free number, 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324).
I recall when desktop computers and the internet were relatively new, and there was much optimistic talk about the possibilities. They never told us then about the darker side of the technology, but we now know what some of that darker side looks like. So, please be careful.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
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