Imagine it’s a day like any other, and you’re downloading an indie game. The file is suspiciously small, but it’s an indie game, so you conclude it’s not THAT weird. But when the setup is complete, you immediately notice something strange: ads and programs start running on your computer, and you can’t shut it down.
You’ve been hacked.
That’s just one of many examples of how hackers can get to your device. While downloading a virus masquerading as an innocent file is pretty straightforward, there are more subtle ways to compromise your digital security.
What exactly is hacking anyway?
Hacking is an act of seizing unauthorized data from a system or computer. Said data could include email addresses, passwords, credit card details, and other personal identification information.
If I were to put it simply, I’d say there are two ways in which you can be hacked: indirectly and directly.
- “Indirect” hacking occurs when hackers get ahold of users’ information from a website with millions of accounts. This is especially dangerous if you’re reusing your passwords for multiple accounts. In such cases, it becomes easier for hackers to get to your information by using tactics like brute-force attacks and credential stuffing.
- “Direct” hacking takes place when a hacker targets you specifically, either by phishing, infesting your device with a virus, or some other way (I’ll talk more about it later in the article).
I’ve included the following graph to show the approximate number of accounts that just one data breach affects. And yes, the numbers on the y-axis are in billions.
How to know if you’ve been hacked: 6 warning signs
The smarter the technology advancements, the more sophisticated and unprecedented are hacking attempts. And while it’s impossible to go through every single method cybercriminals use to get what they want, let’s go through some common warning signs indicating that your data has been tampered with.
Have I been hacked?
Here are the six signs that will help you spot a cyberattack.
- Data breaches on websites you’ve registered.
- Weird text messages that you didn’t send.
- Unusual pop-ups, ads, and programs on your device.
- Getting notifications about log-in attempts.
- Installing software you didn’t authorize.
- Redirected internet searches.
So, how to spot successful hacking attacks?
1. You have an account on a site that’s been breached.
You’ve become a victim of cybercrime if you’ve checked your email for breaches, and it returned something along the lines of the screenshot below.
The screenshot above is from Surfshark’s email monitoring feature called Surfshark Alert. I’ll talk more about it in the section about email hacking. You can also check your email for breaches on sites like haveibeenpwned.com.
2. Your contacts are receiving unusual text messages from you.
You should be worried if someone tells you they keep getting strange messages from you. Usually, the messages contain links to malicious websites that infect your device with viruses.
3. You’ve installed infected software on your computer.
Remember the example I provided at the beginning of the article? Well, if you’ve installed something from an unauthorized website and it ended up running ads and strange programs on your computer, then you’ve definitely been hacked.
4. You’re getting notifications about log-in attempts.
If you get notifications about suspicious log-in attempts, it’s a clear indication that someone’s trying to hack you.
5. Your device is installing software you didn’t authorize.
If your device is installing software that you didn’t authorize, that is also an indication of a hack.
6. Your internet searches are redirected.
If you’re experiencing weird behavior from your browser, there’s a high chance it’s infected with malware. To fix it, completely reset your browser settings.
4 ways hackers can compromise your accounts and devices
1. Phone hacking: how can you tell if your phone has been hacked?
Hackers can plant spyware on your phone without even touching it. There are several signs that should alarm you:
- Unusual data usage
- Abnormal activity on linked accounts
- Strange pop-ups
- Random reboots
- Slower loading speed
- Impeded shutdowns
- Blocked emails
- Screen waking up randomly
- Unusual noises during calls
- Sudden battery drainage.
2. Computer hacking: even careful ones can fall victim to it.
Computer hacking takes many forms: sometimes, it’s clear you’ve been hacked because you can’t get rid of pop-ups, but there are also times when your computer simply slows down due to malware. It’s quite dangerous because people usually don’t think viruses can cause speed changes. While it’s bad news for you, it’s pretty good news for hackers.
3. Email hacking: one of the most common types of hacking.
Here’s a thing, there’s a high chance that your email address or passwords have been compromised during a data breach on some website you’ve created an account once. Some of the biggest social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have had their users’ account information leaked, so if you’ve been on the internet long enough, your email address has probably ended up in some hacker forum.
4. Social media hacking: a headache for high-profile people.
We’ve all seen celebrities tweet strange things, and while some of it is just due to their personalities, there’s also been numerous successful hacking attempts. From spreading propaganda to suspicious links, hackers find ways to utilize the platforms celebrities and politicians have.
For example, not that long ago on Twitter, Elon Musk, Apple, and even Barack Obama, among some 100 other accounts, started tweeting about strange bitcoin scams. Twitter has quickly taken care of this massive account takeover, but the damage was already done.
So, I’ve been hacked – what’s next?
Not every hacker attack is created equal. Depending on the severity of the attack, your actions will be different. Here are some tips that will help you take back control of your digital security:
- Change your password(s) immediately. That’s the least you can do, and it’s a crucial step. And when you change it, make it a unique one. I also highly recommend using a password management tool. What could be better than not having to remember tons of passwords ever again? For example, iPhones have a built-in password management tool along with other extra privacy and security features.
- Get in touch with the company that your account is created on, e.g., Facebook. Every company has its own policy on such cases. You can find the account recovery process for different companies by doing a simple Google search. The steps you need to take will differ depending on your situation.
- Reinstall your operating system. Wiping your device clean and setting it up again is critical if you want to get rid of unauthorized programs and malware.
- Keep a close eye on your banking account. Make sure to look out for fraudulent purchases made on your behalf, and, depending on the severity of the attack, freeze your account until you’ve handled the situation.
How to avoid hacking & take back control?
In the times when hackers can penetrate your network by finding security loopholes in your smart light bulbs or other IoT devices, it’s crucial to take hacking prevention seriously.
- Use two-factor authentication. 2FA introduced additional steps in the log-in process, making it harder for potential attackers to guess your passwords and take over your accounts.
- Regularly scan your device for viruses. If you don’t use antivirus software, you definitely should. It’s a great prevention tool that works in the background and lets you know when something seems off.
- Don’t shun software updates. You should keep your software up-to-date not just because developers added new emojis but also because of security features and patches.
- Avoid unprotected Wi-Fi networks. Make sure you don’t go checking your bank account balance or work emails on unprotected networks. Use mobile data or turn on a VPN if you can’t avoid using public Wi-Fi.
The key takeaways
You can usually tell that you’ve been hacked by sudden and weird changes on your device, browser, email, social media account, or bank account.
Those signals could include: getting weird pop-ups, your contacts getting messages from you that you didn’t send, your device installing software you didn’t authorize, getting notifications about suspicious log-in attempts, redirected internet searches, your email appearing in a data breach.
No one can guarantee you 100% internet safety, but proper cyber hygiene (creating strong, unique passwords, installing Antivirus software, monitoring your emails, using a VPN) can go a long way.