If you’d asked me ten years ago if I thought a hacker was more dangerous than a mugger, I’d have probably said no. But hackers are no joke; special thanks to baystreetblog.com for giving me the chance to talk about this very real problem. When you finish and if you’re looking for ways to save money, check out their “Millennial Savings Guide.”
Can a hacker ruin your day? You bet. In truth, the effects of identity theft or breached security can be far more pronounced than just a single day’s worth of suffering. When a hacker gets hold of your personal information, you can be facing a complete financial meltdown.
Make no mistake: banks know what hackers can do, and they take steps to minimize the collateral damage, but how protected you are depends on your bank. Some fraudulent charges can be reversed fairly quickly if theft protection is a part of your package, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get off scot-free.
The first most notable change you may experience as a result of a hack is your immediate access to funds. When a hacker accesses your account, they can perform transfers, they can make fraudulent purchases, and they can pay bills. Much of this is trackable to an extent, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back right away (or at all).
Worse still are the myriad of penalties and fees you could end up paying. Because of how over-drafting works in modern banking, it’s possible to continue making charges on your behalf well after you’ve entered the negatives (and each charge will result in a fee in most cases). If your bank doesn’t decide to forgive those charges, you’ll be even deeper in the hole.
Another plausible target is your savings account. Money that’s normally meant to be left to accrue interest can be used up just as easily as your checking funds. All of this means immediate lockdown on your ability to pay your bills, purchase food or gas up your ride. Until you get things in order, think of any non-cash as being totally frozen.
Even if your bank has policies to protect your spending money and savings, that doesn’t always extend to the credit bureaus. They see overdraft fees, late payments, and unpaid bills all the same as if nothing had been corrected. It can be very hard to convince the three bureaus that you’ve had your information or identity stolen, and even if you do, there’s no promise they will immediately correct any discrepancies.
The effects of a damaged credit score can reach years into the future. Ordinarily responsible people have had their good credit entirely wiped out by a security breach and been forced to rebuild from scratch. That means no car loans, no mortgages, and very low credit limits with relatively high interest rates for years to come. It’s not a pleasant outcome, to say the least.
An easily forgotten but just as important aspect of identity theft is actually the theft of your person. It’s bad enough to have your money taken and credit score tanked, but when a hacker steals your identity, they don’t necessarily use it themselves. Identities, addresses, credit cards and the like are traded online illegally on the less scrupulous part of the net that most people don’t know how to access.
Once your information’s been sold, there’s no telling what kinds of things it will be used for. It’s a persisting problem that isn’t easy to stamp out because certain things don’t change easily (your home address, social security number, etc. aren’t necessarily easy to change overnight).
What You Can Do
It wouldn’t be worth much to tell you exactly what can happen without offering suggestions to prevent that concerning “worst case scenario.” How you prepare for disaster may be the deciding factor as to whether you’re “unlucky” or not. So how should you begin?
Take preventative measures: if a lot of your financial data is tied to online accounts (such as your bank account login, credit card accounts, etc.) then you need to be certain access to these accounts is properly secured. Passwords are always your first line of defense in that regard.
Keep your passwords unique to each service and make certain that they’re “strong” passwords by using a combination of numbers (upper and lowercases), numbers, and symbols (such as #$&). Avoid using dictionary words as they’re much easier to guess or crack.
As you might expect, hacking almost essentially involves internet access. Unsecure connections are a particular hotspot for hackers to sneak into people’s devices, intercept data or plant malware, and reap the spoils without ever being noticed. The place you’re most likely to encounter this combination is over public WiFi, such as at your local coffee shop or even sometimes at work.
Protect your devices and connections with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which is a service that routes your internet through a protected tunnel that encrypts your data and keeps you safe over unsecured connections. The best VPNs out there only cost a few dollars per month, so the investment is certainly worth it.
Even if you safeguard your accounts and protect your devices, you still need to be aware of scams. We’ve reached a point now where even Walmart offers a warning at their Moneygram desk about sending money for suspicious reasons. Scams are all over the internet, and you must be able to recognize them.
The biggest key to avoiding scams is to be suspicious. Hyperlinks on social media, strange emails, or from a friend’s hacked account are popular methods of tricking people into downloading malware. Be cautious what you click on and always ask yourself why before you do.
Look for unnatural behavior. You know how people you know would normally act, so if they suddenly want you to sign up for something or take part in something “new and exciting,” you may want to think twice. Contact people off the internet if you’re concerned that their account has been stolen and is being used to perpetuate a scam.
Phishing is another sneaky scam that’s been growing especially rampant. Hackers and other criminals create fake websites that resemble trusted pages such as Facebook or Twitter (or have lines such as “Login using Facebook.”) Check the web address when you visit pages; phishing pages can’t duplicate “Facebook.com,” but they can create similar pages such as “facebook.scam.com” by putting popular names before the actual web domain (the word immediately before the .com or .net.)
In that same way, be sure that where you’re logging in is the real website. When in doubt, navigate to official pages manually by typing in the real address. If you think something is strange about a link, just go to the real page (so instead of clicking the link to “Facebook,” you can just go to Facebook.com and not have to worry).
Use Your Noggin’
If you’re careful, being hacked is something you won’t generally need to worry about. Hackers prefer easy targets with valuable data and aren’t likely to bother you if you’ve got good security software and keep your accounts safe. Recognizing scams takes practice, but once you’ve seen a few, you’ll start to be able to pick them out with ease.
A final tip: while it’s not a sure way to spot a scam, awkward English is a red flag you should be aware of. With that in mind, have you ever seen something and known it was a scam? If you’ve been the victim of a hack or known someone else who has, tell us about it in the comments!
Cassie is a freelance writer and blogger who is proud to combine her two greatest loves: entertainment and technology. She hopes these tips will help you stay safe when enjoying all sorts of online entertainment.
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