What is hacking — and how can you protect yourself?

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Learn what hacking is and what you can do to prevent it from happening to you. (Photo: Getty)

Cybercrime is up, and consumers have been told to keep their guard up against cybercriminals. The term “hacking” is often used, but what is it, why do people do it, and what risks are involved? We'll get into the details of what hacking is — and how to avoid becoming the victim of a cybercrime.

What is hacking?

“Criminal hacking happens when a person or group unlawfully accesses (usually remotely) your computer, phone or other connected device or any of your online accounts with the intention of stealing data or causing nefarious disruption,” Camille Stewart, global head of product security strategy at Google tells Yahoo Life.

Depending on the cybercriminal’s goals, Stewart explains that “this data could be your financial information (where they can access your bank or credit accounts and withdraw money), details about your identity (so they can steal your identity and open new financial accounts under your name), or incriminating evidence that they can hold against you.”

Try Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device for 30 days free. After that, it's $4.99 per month.

Hackers: What they are and why you should care

A hacker is someone who attempts to gain access to a computer for malicious purposes. Typically, hackers break into systems either to get access to the information stored there, to steal money by using viruses or other malware to make unauthorized charges against accounts, or to simply cause denial-of-service attacks, which aim to shut down a device or network.

Hackers target both individuals and organizations for financial gain. Many hackers also engage in illegal activities such as identity theft, credit card fraud, and spamming. Some try to find ways to trick users into giving up personal information. Still others do it for “fun” rather than profit, enjoying seeing how far they can go before getting caught.

Knowing how to keep your devices safe from hackers can give you peace of mind — and security. (Photo: Getty)

What hackers can do

The biggest risk associated with hacking is stolen data. If a hacker gains unauthorized access to sensitive files, he could copy those files onto his own machine and then sell them on the dark web or publish them online. For organizations, this might mean a hacker is able to steal confidential customer records or trade secrets, which would put their business at risk.

Another potential danger comes when hackers attempt to change settings on a user account so that they can impersonate that person. For example, if a hacker has gained control of a bank account belonging to one of its customers, he could transfer money between accounts under his name. He could also make purchases on behalf of himself or anyone else. This type of activity is called “account takeover.” A third possibility involves changing a password so that the victim cannot regain control of their own account, thereby holding your information hostage.

7 ways to protect yourself from hackers

There are several things you can do to reduce the chances of being hacked:

Tip #1: Use strong passwords

The passwords should contain a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters to make them as strong as possible. For a more secure password, you should avoid using obvious choices, such as names, locations, dates, phone numbers, birthdays, addresses, etc., since these are easy for hackers to guess.

Tip #2: Keep software updated

The majority of operating systems today come with automatic software updates that help programs stay up-to-date, including when new security risks appear. Check regularly for the release of new versions of software installed on your devices and make sure you're running the latest version.

“Bad actors can go after anyone — young, old, celebrities, journalists, lawmakers, or everyday people,” Stewart explains. “You can think of it like a burglar who wants to break into someone’s house — they’re not necessarily going after the biggest house on the block, but the one that’s left its front door unlocked.”

Stewart adds: “That’s why it’s important to protect your accounts and devices with strong passwords and multi-factor authentication and by keeping your software up-to-date.”

Tip #3: Install antivirus protection

Antivirus software, such as Malwarebytes, helps protect against malicious codes that can try to infect your computer. The best way to ensure this protection is through regular scans performed automatically by the antivirus software.

Try Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device for 30 days free. After that, it's $4.99 per month.

Antivirus software, such as Malwarebytes, helps protect against malicious codes that can try to infect your computer. (Photo: Getty)

Tip #4: If you are not absolutely sure what an attachment is, don't open it

Whenever you receive an email from someone you don't know, make it a practice to never click on the links embedded in it. If the email comes from a friend, family member, or a business you're familiar with, but you're not sure if it's legitimate, reach out to the individual in a separate email or visit the business' website directly, rather than clicking on the links in a questionable email.

Tip #5: Be wary of unsolicited offers

Don't respond to emails offering free services or asking for personal details. These scams usually involve viruses or code designed to capture log in credentials.

Tip #6: Use encryption technology

Encryption technology, such as VPNs, helps secure communications among computers connected to the Internet. Encryption scrambles data being transmitted, making it harder for attackers to read the contents of intercepted packets of information.

Tip #7: Report suspicious activity immediately

Contact law enforcement officials if you've been hacked and suspect criminal activity, such as identity theft or credit card fraud. Additionally, if you think you've been the victim of a phishing scam, visit IdentityTheft.gov and follow the appropriate steps.

Try Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device for 30 days free. After that, it's $4.99 per month.

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