What makes you an easy target for hackers?

By Lindsey Connell - bio | email

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -  Kris Martinez knows a thing or two about being the target of computer criminals.

The Harris County man recently noticed a chunk of money missing from his checking account. He soon realized his eBay account had been invaded.

"You can easily go from being the bystander to the victim before you know it. They came and hacked into my computer, got my password, went into eBay, set up a purchase and transferred money out of my pay pal account," he said.

Without warning, he was out $700 that he needed to pay bills.

"They blocked all incoming communications between me and pay pal and me and eBay so whenever they sent notifications saying you've won this bid or you purchased this or your transaction was complete, I never received any of these emails. Whenever I logged on, everything looked good," Martinez explained.

He is not alone.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center estimates more than half of computers on the internet are infected with some sort of malicious software, "malware," used by those in the online underworld.

The center's latest numbers show that in 2009, close to $560 million was lost online, up from the $265 million lost in 2008. That's double in only one year.

Authorities say nowadays, the skill level of hackers is way down but the damage they can do is way up.

Hackers get into your computer in a number of ways, creating tainted links or embedding regular web pages with viruses- including the crippling Trojan virus.

"Once they have a Trojan launched on your computer, they pretty much own your computer. The unsuspecting person can just be serving the web and be hacked. It's that easy. They're taking over your life. That's how I see it. They take over your life," said Special Agent Bobby Stanley with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Computer Crimes Unit.

Inside the GBI's headquarters in Decatur, Special Agent Stanley showed us Wireshark, a free program hackers download online.

"If I was a hacker and came in and placed this on the network, I could capture the information going back and forth. What do you do online? Your banking, your emails, your confidential data. They can capture it and reassemble it," he revealed.

And once they're in, you're in trouble. They steal your information and even reassemble banking sessions and credit card numbers. They grab email addresses from your friends to launch attacks on other computers.

"They pretty much have free reign. They can launch things, applications where they can go in and pull out passwords- internet passwords, Microsoft passwords and it takes five seconds. And the very first thing they do when they get in is they change the passwords so you, the regular owner, cannot get back into it," Agent Stanley said.

The best way to protect yourself is to stay on top of your antivirus software and change your passwords at least every 90 days. Never use your spouse's or pet's name or your date of birth.

"If you don't stay on top of it, you'll probably eventually get hacked," Stanley added.

"If you have what we refer to as a strong password where it is a combination of letters and symbols, I think the chances of that happening is certainly reduced," said Supervisory Agent Donnie Green over the Columbus FBI Office.

Green says computer crimes like hacking are the FBI's number three priority behind counter-terrorism and counterintelligence. Oftentimes, they all go hand in hand.

When it comes to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, think quality not quantity when it comes to your list of friends. Just being on these sites makes you prey for hackers.

"The more people you put in there, the greater chance you have of being hacked," Stanley said.

On top of avoiding adding strangers to your friend list, agents say you should limit the amount of personal information you post. You can include your birthday but never include the year you were born- it's a direct link to your social security number. And be very wary of any links you're sent, even if they come from a trusted friend.

If you have in fact been hacked, chances are you won't find out about it until after the fact, like Kris Martinez.

"When you see these reports and hear about it, you always think it's somebody else. You never think that it's going to happen to me or someone's going to get into my account. You feel so secure," Martinez said.

"Immediately, if you think you've been hacked, make sure your computer is not on the internet anymore. If you have a wireless access point, turn it off," Agent Stanley warned users.

Besides wiping your computer clean, agents encourage hacking victims to start over with all new online accounts and passwords to avoid bringing over any comprised files.

Remember, the more personal information you store on your computer, the longer it will take you to get back on your feet if you're hacked.

April 15th is fast approaching and lots of folks are gearing up to do their taxes online.

If you're filling out tax forms on your computer, don't save your W-2 and other documents to your computer. Put them on a thumb drive or external hard drive.

Hackers will dig through your computer and that paperwork gives them every piece of information they need to wreak havoc.

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