Home > Identity Theft > My Run-In With a Real-Life Hacker

Comments 0 Comments

I received an unexpected email from a friend today with a Google doc attachment. It was a friendly note, so friendly that I did consider clicking on it — even with about 20 years experience watching all manner of hacker tricks.  Fortunately, I stopped and asked a simple question, which is almost always enough to separate real email from phishing attacks.

“Did you mean to send me a document?”

I’ve done this 100 times, and I’ve nearly always received a, “Oh no, I must have been hacked” response. Today, however, was different. That’s why I’m nervous for you.

“Yes, I sent it myself…,” was the response I got from my friend’s email account. “Log in to view the document.”

Whoa.  Knowing my friend as I do, I could tell this was not written in her chatty style.  But outside of that language analysis and my already raised eyebrows, I might have clicked.  So I persisted.

“How is the new home?” I asked, fishing for any sense that my friend was behind the email. Again, I expected that a hacker wouldn’t bother responding. After all, in a traditional phishing attack like this, it’s likely the bad guy sent out a million of these emails, just hoping to get 100 or so people to click and cough up their login credentials.

Seconds later, I got a response.

“Nice and lovely.”

Two email responses? This was getting interesting…and concerning.  I now had a pretty strong feeling that a computer criminal was behind the keyboard, but there was still a small chance it was my friend. So I did two things. You can try these two if you think you might be talking to a criminal.

1) I contacted her on Facebook, borrowing from a technique called “out of band” authentication. I used a different tool to communicate with her to ask  if the email was real. Mind you, it’s possible that both my friend’s Gmail and Facebook accounts were hacked, and the criminal could have “passed” this test. But it it at least a good start. If I’d had more time, I would have sent her a text message from my cellphone, and waited for a reply, which would genuinely qualify as “out of band” authentication.

2) I devised a question that a hacker probably couldn’t answer.

“I’m coming to visit (your new city) soon. Remind me what neighborhood are you in?”

Then, the email fell silent. Again, this isn’t a perfect strategy: a very clever criminal could have hacked into her Facebook account and replied back with her new neighborhood (which, of course, I know).  But again, I’ve climbed up the ladder of authentication pretty easily, and also not said anything too offensive.

What does that mean? Many people fall for booby traps because they are simply too polite to say, “That doesn’t sound like you!” Criminals rely on social conventions like these to trick us. Such a statement might actually generate a reply like, “I can’t believe you said that. I’m really offended,” or similar. Many people fall for that. So having  polite but informed banter is a good tool for situations like this.

Those details aside, I’m writing this up to share with you something that really concerns me. It is incredibly labor intensive for a hacker to reply to notes like mine. That says one thing to me: Someone is trying awfully hard to trick you into surrendering your login information. So watch out.

So what was going on? I’m pretty sure it was this. Users who click on the attachment are taken to a page that looks like Google docs, but it’s not, and are tricked into logging in to a page controlled by criminals, thereby giving up their Google credentials.

This is bad because a bad guy could send out emails in your name, but really, it’s much worse than that. Millions of people use Gmail as their password recovery tool, so when hacker gains access to it, s/he can often use it to hack other accounts. For example, they go to an online banking site, click on ‘I forgot my password,’ and have a password email reset link sent to your Gmail account. The problem can spiral pretty quickly.

My friend wrote an hour later or so to say she knew nothing about the emails, and a hacker must have broken in.  She’s in full recovery mode now. If this has happened to you, Google has instructions on what to do.

Meanwhile, NEVER click on a link to an attachment you don’t expect, even if it comes from a friend. And even if that “friend” asks you to click on it several times.  On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.  And you don’t know if you’re talking to a hacker, either.

[Editor’s note: If you suspect your personal data has been compromised by a hacker, it’s important to monitor your financial accounts daily.  In addition, you can check your credit reports for fraudulent accounts or other errors that could be a result of identity theft.  Monitoring your credit scores, which you can do for free through Credit.com, can also tip you off to identity fraud if you see a sudden, unexpected drop in your scores.]

This post originally appeared on BobSullivan.net.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: Tyler Olson

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team