If you’re reading this it’s likely that your email account was recently hacked and now you’re wondering how it happened, why it happened to you. Or maybe you’re just wondering how you can prevent it from happening to you.
Let me start off by saying that there are many different ways an email account can be compromised. In this article I’ll cover three of those methods.
Also note that these aren’t the only way an email account can get compromised. People are always inventing new ways of compromising an email account/system. So by the time you finish reading this article, it’s likely that they will have come up with a few new techniques.
Now lets imagine you’re at the local coffee shop sipping on some hot coffee. You open your laptop and connect to the coffee shop’s WiFi. Why not, it’s free Internet, right?
Now it’s time to check your email messages because you are expecting important news. You open the email client on your computer and start browsing the Internet for, you know, important stuff. An hour passes by and you go on your way to work, home, or school. But did you notice the person sitting across from you with their laptop? He just took your email credentials while you weren’t looking. But how did it happen?
Did it happen while you were in the bathroom?
Did it happen when you went for yet another cup of joe?
So how did that person steal your email information with out even coming close to your computer?
Ever heard of a Man in the Middle attack? To put a MITM attack in simplest terms, some malicious so and so sets up their computer to act like a router and tricks your computer into thinking that the computer actually is the router. Then the router thinks the shady computer – in the middle of the connection – is your computer.
Think of it as someone tapping into your network connection. Once this starts happening they can view all kinds of fun packets coming from your computer to the mail server (or to any server). Each time you make a connection to the mail server you are sending your authentication credentials through the bad guy’s computer.
From there it’s easy to use a program to filter out all packets containing login credentials. This includes your Facebook, Twitter, and bank account login information as well. Everything.
So does that mean it would be better to just stay away from your local coffee shop?
Hey, no need to be drastic! You can still go and you can still surf the Internet but it may be best if you didn’t use the coffee shop’s Internet connection. Personally, I don’t trust any network that I don’t own or control.
A nice work-around would be to use the Internet connection on your smart phone. Most smart phones have the capability of turning into a password protected Wifi “hot spot.” They also have the capability to tether the smart phone to your laptop. But, of course you will be using your phone service provider’s data plan.
So if I protect myself from that shady “man in the middle,” I’m safe, right?
Another way your email account could be compromised is with a virus/malware being installed on your computer without your knowledge. This method is the most common and likely way that your email account (and everything else on your computer) can be compromised. I’ve seen what some of these viruses and malware are capable of doing, and it’s scary stuff.
Some of the virus/malware infections come with a nice little tool called a keylogger. What it basically does it logs all your key strokes and sends them to a server controlled by whoever infected your computer with the virus/malware. So any time you enter a username and password, the keystrokes are logged before the login request is sent. It doesn’t matter that the connection from your computer to the mail server is encrypted.
So how did this software get onto your system, or how can you prevent it from being installed on your system?
You can start by practicing the following:
Keep your system/software updated with the latest security patches.
Update your Antivirus programs and run scans on a routine schedule.
Avoid downloading files you don’t recognize.
Don’t open any email messages you didn’t expect to receive. For example: You get an email message with the subject; “Your PayPal account has been limited,” but you don’t have a PayPal account.
Avoid visiting web sites that have a bad reputation. A simple Google Search will sometimes display a warning message in the search results right below the domain name; “This site may harm your computer.“
The third way an email account can be compromised is by social engineering. Some email systems come with a nifty “Forgot your password?” tool. So what’s the big deal about this feature? Well, when you were setting up your email account you weren’t thinking twice and just answered the security questions truthfully. For example the signup form has the following questions:
What is your pet’s name?
What is your mother’s maiden name?
Which street did grow up on?
Which school did you attend in the 5th grade?
In which hospital were you born?
You had to pick two of them and answered the two question correctly. No harm done right?
Wrong. The question/answer that you’ve set up with your email account should actually be considered to be your second and third passwords. Why? Because the correct answers to these questions gains access to the email account.
It would be best to answer these questions kind of incorrectly. So, let’s say you chose Which street did grow up on? and What is your mother’s maiden name? and answer to the first question is Main St. and the answer to the next question is Smith.
Instead of using the correct answers, you can add a extra character befor the real answer. For example @Main St. and @Smith. If the system doesn’t allow these type of characters then you can also use a letter before the real answer. For example: QMain St. and QSmith . That way if the malicious person finds out the real information, they will still have a hard time getting into your email account.
You must be wondering how these people even get the information in order to gain access to your email account using the security questions method. The answer is very easy. In this day and age most of us use social media sites Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. What’s the problem with social media? Well, the problem is we like to give out to much information.
We all like to share, share, share. Sometimes we don’t realize it, but we give out too much information. So much information that it makes it easy for a malicious person to gain access to your email account using the security question method.
If you keep these things in mind and think about security in new ways, you will protect yourself from a lot of potential headaches.