At a time when everyone is spending more hours online, from business owners working to ensure the safety of their networks and employees to remote workforces and kids learning virtually, there has never been a better reason for us to collectively safeguard ourselves from the cyber risks that exist today.
There are many lists of tips and best practices available, but instead of preaching the benefits of a password manager or two-factor authentication, let’s step inside the mindset of a hacker to better understand how their world works. Through that perspective, we can gain valuable insight into how best to protect ourselves from a variety of cyberthreats.
Step One: Identifying A Vulnerability
A hacker first needs to find a way in, and there are several options to explore. They can exploit vulnerabilities within a device, network, system or application to allow unwanted access by outside parties. The CISA explains that you can significantly decrease this risk by keeping apps, operating systems and devices up to date because many vulnerabilities are caught and fixed fairly quickly through this measure.
What hackers often rely on instead are human vulnerabilities, or user errors that can easily expose sensitive data or open the door for unwanted access. This can include weak or repeated passwords, inadvertent downloading of malicious software and much more. Many data breaches — 90%, according to a recent CybSafe analysis (via InfoSecurity) — are a result of a human vulnerability, and with so many users online and working remotely this year, Iomart (via CNBC) found there has been an increase in data breaches as a result.
Finally, hackers can also look to exploit a network vulnerability, which I’ve found occurs most often when a network’s hardware or software is exposed to the potential for intrusion, such as an insecure Wi-Fi network or insecure devices that can be used to gain access to your network.
Step Two: Wreaking Havoc Or Worse
Once a hacker has found a way in, they typically try to take as much advantage of their entry as possible. If an email and password combination works on one site, a hacker will frequently input the same information into hundreds or even thousands of other sites. The program they use might also try slight variations on the password. A hacker hits the jackpot when they suddenly have access to many websites where credit card information and other personal details are stored. Hackers may later post or sell these credentials on the dark web, quickly spreading the victim’s information even further, but usually only after they’ve accessed all your valuable data before you even realize (if you do at all). However, if the program comes back without additional access, usually because the consumer uses unique passwords, the hacker may be forced to move on. Even worse is when the correct email and password requires additional verification, usually via text message or an authentication app, pushing the hacker back to square one. Another dead end is often a secure Wi-Fi network with a strong password that limits their access.
If the hacker gains access to a computer, they can run code, access a system’s memory, install malware or modify data. They look at a system’s hardware, software, network and users, and when they find one that meets their motives, they can leverage these flaws in their attack, putting your identity and personal information at risk in the process. What they’ll be disappointed to find is a user who has an updated OS with firewalls and antivirus software installed.
Step Three: Savvy Scamming
I’ve found that hackers are also always on the lookout for an especially complex system that has a greater chance of misconfiguration or a device that is overly connected. If that isn’t evident, a savvy hacker might forge their way into a system through a phishing scheme using email, social media, phone calls and more to steal valuable data. These scams can be remarkably tailored and are often successful because they outsmart spam filters and use information found on public social media accounts to customize the communication and impersonate people the user actually knows by targeting an email domain that has easily mistaken letters — like “m” instead of “rn.” Phishing schemes are typically most successful when the target is in a hurry and likely discounts a gut reaction to something looking a bit off. These fraudulent communications will often ask for payment details via email or through a questionable webpage without branding or typical payment processes. While these schemes can be convincing, the hacker is beholden to an action from the target and will not gain access to anything of value if the communication is simply deleted.
Staying A Step Ahead
You may not be able to prevent every type of cybercrime. In fact, it’s likely you will experience some form in your life, if you haven’t already. However, all hope is not lost, and there are many actions you can take to protect yourself and your personal information and make a hacker’s job more difficult.
There is an instant advantage in understanding the most common vulnerabilities and what you can do to better manage these weaknesses to prevent successful hacking. Cyberattacks are constantly evolving, so managing vulnerabilities and protecting against them is a continuous process. Luckily, there are a wide range of tools — including password managers, vulnerability scanning software and identity protection services — and easy behavior changes that can help. While it’s tempting to repeat the same password, ignore prompts to update software, and click quickly through emails or pop-ups, taking the time to get these right will make the hacker’s work much harder and may even cause them to move on to their next target.