Battling a New Kind of Home Intruder

by Julianne Grayson, Freelance writer for (Originally published here:

In the not-too-distant past, the threat of hacking was confined to PCs and laptops. Today, we rely on a proliferation of electronic devices for communication, directions and entertainment – all potential channels of information for hackers with malicious intent. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, cell phones, Global Positioning Services (GPS), Internet-enabled TVs, tablets and wired cars are all susceptible to thieves trying to access critical personal information.

Cybercrime is on the rise, one of the most rapidly growing areas of prosecuted crime. Hackers may be computer geeks with malicious intent, identity thieves, spies, traders in illegal pornography or businesses attempting to disrupt competitor’s websites. The impact on society can be staggering, ranging from downed systems for vital infrastructure like hospitals or emergency response systems to financial cost. Brand damage is difficult to measure, and the cost to repair and prevent future damage from hackers annually runs into the billions.

What Kinds of Cybercrime Exist?

While it seems that hackers crack codes for every new device that hits the marketplace, there are some defined forms of cybercrime that have been deemed illegal by state and federal authorities.

  • Hardware Hijacking: Some peripheral externals, like printers, contain design flaws that allow them to automatically receive software updates via an Internet connection. Criminals can surreptitiously download damaging files to these devices.
  • Spam: Unsolicited e-mail is not only annoying; it is often used for phishing, a practice that deceives users into providing delicate data such as Social Security numbers, birthdates, passport identification numbers or credit card numbers. This information is used by identity thieves, or to access bank and credit card accounts. Spam often contains malicious bits of code that can permanently damage your computer. Some spammers practice spoofing, allowing them to use your email address to send the same code to everyone in your address book.
  • Information Warfare: Targeted at businesses and large, complex systems, information warfare aims to disable these systems. These cybercriminals either use malicious code or repeatedly hit the server from multiple computers at once, causing the target server to crash.
  • Malware: A very common source of disabled devices is malware, or malicious software. Malware files can be downloaded to your device without your consent, sometimes even without your knowledge. These files allow criminals to monitor your activities on your device or crash it permanently. Cell phones are particularly prone to malware due to their small screen size; it may be easy to miss a link or download notification on a cell phone.
  • Harassment: The most common form of cybercrime, the term harassment includes obscenities or insulting comments directed towards an individual or group of individuals, and may or may not be related to sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity or gender.
  • Offensive Content: Obscene and distasteful content on the Internet is not only something that children should not see; it is illegal in many countries.
  • Fraud: Internet fraud can take many forms, but it is most often in the guise of misrepresenting oneself and enticing a consumer to provide sensitive information. Fraud is usually financial in nature and is often related to identity theft. Technically, it is also fraudulent to use your neighbor’s Internet signal if you are not paying for it.
  • Trespassing: Hackers illegally gain access to individual hard drives and can remove or copy files, install software, view browsing history and access your passwords. Trespassing is often fraudulent; for example, a cloned website of a familiar vendor may request that readers click a link or download a file that allows access to a hard drive.
  • Drug Trafficking: Encrypted emails are used by drug traffickers around the world to share manufacturing formulas and arrange deals and delivery of illegal drugs.

Devices other than laptops and cellphones are at risk. In April 2012, Sony’s PlayStation Network was famously hacked, shutting down its network and releasing personal information for 100 million users. Internet TVs, designed to allow access to streaming content like Netflix and Pandora, open a window for hackers to not only access your television, but any computers that are linked to the same network. Cars that are wired for personal use, which are increasingly popular in new models, may provide criminals a pathway to your phone and all of the delicate information kept therein. Alarmingly, it was recently proven that medical devices such as insulin pumps for diabetics can be hacked and controlled by an outsider.

Smartphone apps, those useful and helpful tools we love, can offer opportunities for hacking. Home alarm systems that are controlled by apps may allow an evil-minded hacker to access your home’s security features without your knowledge. Many popular apps are based on GPS systems, which are often provided to third parties without your knowledge. The ubiquitous Bluetooth technology is not immune to exposure; hackers can spam your phone, access its contents or take it over completely via Bluetooth channels.


Are We Defenseless?

While consumers should be aware of the possibilities, there is no reason to panic. Developers are creating code that resists hacking attempts as fast as hackers come up with new tactics, and the U.S. government is watchful. The Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security all have personnel dedicated to the eradication of cybercrime, and hackers are prosecuted with misdemeanor or felony charges.

There is much you can do to protect yourself from cybercrime. Your devices are programmable for varying levels of protection, and manufacturers of the products you use pre-install protection measures and offer upgrades to security when necessary. Take advantage of these tools and make the following security best practices part of your routine:

  1. Turn off your computer. It is common practice to leave computers on all the time, especially given our impatience with rebooting. Unfortunately, leaving a computer in “sleep mode” offers no more protection than your antivirus software provides, and today’s high-speed networks can allow a hacker to access your PC or laptop swiftly. A computer that is turned off cannot be hacked from an external source.
  2. Update your antivirus software. Companies who manufacture this software are constantly revising code to keep up with new threats, and many issue patches within hours of the appearance of a new worm or malware. Even Macs, once considered immune to viruses, have been infected. Consider bolstering your current software with additional protection. Set your software to receive updates automatically, and ensure that you have spyware protection.
  3. Update your operating system. Similar to antivirus software developers, the manufacturers of your operating system are constantly reacting to new cybercrime threats. Unfortunately, some viruses, worms and malware take the guise of a software update and trick users into downloads. Take the extra few minutes to learn exactly how your system will notify you of an official update, and follow directions when prompted. If you are unsure whether an update is legitimate, check your system user’s guide.
  4. Download wisely. Never open an attachment from someone you do not know, and be suspicious of email forwards with unexplained or confusing attachments. Many antivirus programs, such as Vipre, offer an email protection setting that can alert you to a suspicious attachment from a known user; both traditional corporate and free email clients like Gmail can benefit from this extra protection. When surfing the web, set your page security settings high so that you don’t inadvertently download malware; a strong antivirus program will warn you or prevent you from accessing sites that are dangerous.
  5. Always turn on your firewall. Most laptops and PCs are equipped with a firewall, a barrier to malicious elements that can be configured to a single computer or to a network. Firewalls are commonly pre-configured into the hardware of your computer and protect you from all incoming information. Check the system security on your laptop or PC to see that you have a firewall and that it is turned on. You may also download additional firewall protection. A router for a home wireless network connection provides an extra layer of protection; routers that are set to provide wireless connectivity to multiple devices in your home automatically discard any malicious incoming traffic that is not directed to a single IP address.
  6. Be aware when traveling internationally. Any devices that you travel with, including cell phones, are vulnerable. Exercise caution where free wi-fi is offered, such as in coffee shops and airports. When you access a wireless signal outside of your home’s firewall protection, you are more vulnerable. Take only the devices you need, and back them up before you travel. Consider deleting sensitive data for the duration of your trip and using completely different access passwords for your devices. The FCC offers additional tips for travelers with electronic devices.

Vigilance and awareness are the two best defenses you can provide. The world of cybercrime is fast-moving, and talented individuals with evil intent are attempting to break into new devices as fast as they are developed. However, staying aware of current events in cybercrime news and the updates you may need, as well as fully exploiting the crime prevention tools at your disposal, will keep your home and your data safe from intruders.