At first hackers were just a nuisance. Then they became a threat. Now they have graduated to full-fledged hacking scams.
In December 2020 U.S. authorities discovered that Russian hackers, presumably under the auspices of the Russian state security apparatus, had successfully penetrated the computer networks of as many as 250 different federal agencies and American corporations. The federal agencies included the Commerce, Defence, Homeland Security, and Treasury Departments, as well as the U.S. Postal Service and the National Institutes of Health. In addition, the Department of Energy claimed that its network was affected as well, but that the malware was ‘isolated to business networks only’ and did not affect any nuclear installations.
The hackers attached what is known as malware to a software update issued by SolarWinds®, a major Texas-based developer of a popular network management software that is deployed by 18,000 customers. Since all of them received the update in the course of the year, all 18,000 of those networks could theoretically have been affected. Worse yet, the hoard of information obtained by the hackers was extensive and the damage is not going to be easy to fix.
Hacking Scams: A Short History
In a sense, hacking scams have been around longer than computers. Once upon a time, adept busybodies figured out how to hack into old fashioned analog telephone lines. Once the silicon chip came along it was inevitable that the same devilish combination of inventiveness and curiosity would migrate into the computer age as well.
Hacking was not a phenomenon when computerisation was in its infancy. That was because it was then dependent on bulky mainframes – protected in locked, air-conditioned rooms and restricted primarily to universities and research labs. Hackers must have access, and the only people who had it then were the very people who built, programmed and used those mainframes. They were not going to willingly inflict damage. But then came the PC, and after it the internet, and together they changed everything. Now, any hacker can run hacking scams. Worse yet, anyone can inadvertently transmit hacking scams or become a victim of hacking scams. Just ask the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, or Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and (depending on the week) the richest or second-richest man in the world. A WhatsApp video message the Crown Prince sent to Bezos on May 1, 2018 carried a malicious file that infected his smartphone and may have transferred sensitive personal files either back to the prince or to a third party.
Hackers first became a widespread nuisance when they began to infect computers with what soon were referred to euphemistically as worms and viruses. What made them so widespread is their surreptitious method of delivery as attachments to emails. Clever hackers designed their attachments to look legitimate. Those who were more mischievous than clever designed theirs to look less legitimate.
Either way, once opened they do damage. Worms slither into your computer to latch themselves onto an existing programme. They then replicate themselves to slow the computer down and, potentially, cripple it entirely. Since the hacker can control them remotely, there is no way to overcome them other than by identifying them and removing them. Viruses also attach themselves to an existing programme, but they are another species. They infect the programme with a malicious command that, for example, deletes existing files. These viruses, like the ones that infect humans, are uncontrollable by anyone. Like worms, however, they can be identified and removed.
Implanting malware in your computer is also a common way for scammers to obtain access to your credit card and bank details, among other valuable bits of information.
Worms and viruses then led to Trojan horses. And Trojan horses empowered hacking scams even more.
Just like the one made famous by Homer, these Trojan horses are not detected until they’re inside the city gate. Meaning your computer or smartphone. Unlike worms and viruses, they operate on their own rather than by piggybacking on another programme. Trojan horses are potentially deadly because they steal sensitive information, like your passwords, credit card numbers and PIN numbers and then feed it all back to the hacker. Without even knowing it, you can wake up the next morning and find that someone just withdrew all the money in your bank account.
Or worse. A hacker can programme a Trojan horse to shut down your computer or cellphone entirely. Unless, of course, you pay a hefty ransom. More often than not these days the hacker demands payment in cryptocurrency, since it is anonymous and extremely difficult to recover.
Unfortunately, ransomware is spreading. According to one prominent network security firm, a total of 205,280 different businesses provided evidence that they were victims of ransomware attacks in 2019. That represents a 41 percent increase over the number reported in 2018.
Hackers Can Now Infect Any Computerised Electronic Device
The biggest boon for hacking scams, however, was the introduction of Bluetooth technology. That is because it allowed hackers to take control of virtually any computerised electronic system. That, in turn, made credit card and debit card skimming scams much easier. Hackers can now use Bluetooth to transmit your credit card or debit card number and PIN from ATMs and petrol station pumps.
Bluetooth also allows them to engage in real estate scams. They do so by infecting computer networks of estate agents and solicitors who specialise in real estate transactions. Once they’re inside those networks they can walk away with entire files, including the contract, payment schedule and personal information on the sellers and buyers. The hackers then contact the buyers before the next payment is due, impersonate the solicitor and instruct them to transfer the money to a different account than the one the seller provided. That different account, of course, is one the hackers control. Or better yet, just pay with cryptocurrency.
Hacking Social Media
The year 2020 saw a huge jump in major league hacking of computer systems in all areas – hospitals, school districts, government agencies, and business. The most notable was the highly visible Twitter hack. It has gone down in history as the most simply-executed and the least exploited of all time. The 17-year old perpetrator who was responsible got in by fooling a Twitter employee and hijacked some of the most popular profiles. Then, he tweeted out fake cryptocurrency offers in the name of these celebrities, making off with the crypto equivalent of $177,000. While it was a fairly minor and short-lived hack, it woke up the world to how easy hacking can be – and how anyone can easily become a victim.
What’s Next for Hackers?
Self-driving (or ‘autonomous’) cars? We won’t know for sure until they hit the road. Some experts say the potential threat is exaggerated while others swear the potential for gridlock and mayhem is unlimited. At any event, we’re not there yet. That awaits the introduction of 5G cellular networks, which will have the capacity to transmit the data without a disruptive delay.
If you think you’ve been the victim of a hacking scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.