Posted on Mar 29, 2018

Navigating the Securityscape: Knowing When You’ve Been Hacked

Cybersecurity is a serious concern for businesses large and small. Already, hacked consumer data has cost major businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. A security breach or hack could force smaller companies into bankruptcy. Beyond straight hacks that destroy your website, small businesses need to watch out for redirected web traffic, ads with malicious code, false mouse pointers, and countless other risks. While the threats are grave, there are steps you can take to mitigate these risks.

Let’s face it, wherever there is money, there will be unscrupulous people trying to scam that money. Unfortunately, your digital assets, including your website, social media profiles, and customer data are constantly at risk. So how can you tell if you’ve been hacked? This article will detail several steps you can take to detect a hack, as well as preventative measures.

First, take the security-scape seriously. Acknowledge the risks and take measures to protect yourself. Many hacks are less the result of hyper-advanced viruses and code, and more the product of carelessness. Simple things, like using hard-to-break passwords, keeping software up-to-date, and being careful with links and emails, can go a long way.

Use Advanced Malware Scanners

Malware scanners are one of the most frequently used protective measures, and with good reason: a good malware scanner can detect and counter many viruses and other threats. Most importantly, a good malware scanner evolves as the threats do. In the past, Malware scanners focused primarily on identifying already known threats by reading through code.

Hackers know their trade, however, and can tweak code to make it more difficult for such simple scanners to discover. Often, changing just a few lines of code is enough to throw off many malware scanners. As a result, advanced malware scanners now rely less on reading code and more on observing behavior.  Is a “visitor” acting how a malware program might? If so, the scanner can flag and counteract the potential threat.

Such advanced malware scanners use network traffic detection, system monitoring, and even virtualized environments to detect malware. It may even be possible for the malware scanner to isolate and eliminate the malware itself. However, not all malware programs are created equal. Some are more up to the task than others, so make sure you evaluate malware scanners closely.

Even the best malware programs, however, fail from time to time. So what then? You need to be vigilant and be your own human scanner. Despite what you might think, you don’t have to be an IT expert to identify security risks. The below checklist will help you protect yourself against threats.

Signs That You’ve Been Hacked

Unwanted Browser Toolbars

In the past, browsers were often cluttered with toolbars. These toolbars added various functions. Hackers also realized, however, that toolbars were a great way to insert virulent code, steal data, cram ads down your throat, and otherwise take advantage of you. So it’s important to keep a close eye on your browser.

Most modern browsers are light and sleek. Many of the favorite functionalities offered by the toolbars of yesterday are now integrated directly into the browser. If you notice that your browser interface has changed, see if an unrecognized toolbar has been installed.

It’s possible that the change was legitimate. Browsers sometimes update their interface and features. If this is the case, you’ll be able to learn about the updates quickly and easily.

If the changes weren’t official, you likely have a problem on your hands. When it comes to security, it’s best to be proactive and to err on the side of safety. If you don’t remember installing a toolbar, uninstall it. Most of the time, this is easy to do within the browser. If you can’t remove a third party toolbar for some reason, it’s almost certainly malicious.

When it comes to installing toolbars, your best bet is simply not to. Yes, some toolbars add nice functionalities, but they will slow down your browser and even legitimate toolbars can create security risks. Essentially, the more code on your system, the more chances for hackers to find a way to break in.

Make sure your browser is always updated to the latest stable version. Legitimate browser organizations, like Mozilla, frequently update their software to patch security risks. An outdated browser won’t have these patches in place, meaning they are still vulnerable.

Redirected and Inexplicable Traffic

On the web, traffic is money. Views produce clicks, and some of those clicks will convert. Most websites are set up in an effort to drive traffic. Hackers have figured out ways to drive traffic to website in order to drum up money. In many cases, the websites that are receiving the traffic are not part of the scam, and indeed are being scammed themselves.

The hackers redirecting traffic can insert virulent codes into websites, browsers, and computers themselves. Generally, hackers will try to redirect traffic while making it look legitimate. For example, if you type in “dog food” into a search bar, a savvy hacker isn’t going to send you to a penny stock website. Instead, the webpage will redirect to something pet or dog related.

One way to monitor for hacked traffic is to simply use the search features on your website and browser, paying attention if anything seems out of order. If it looks like these search features are directing you to bogus websites, then you may have been hacked.

Another way is to monitor both in and outbound traffic. If you notice a lot of traffic from your website is inexplicably going to suspicious websites, or likewise a lot of traffic pouring in that doesn’t really make sense (i.e. unrelated keywords), you may have been hacked.

Emails Being Sent From Your Address That You Didn’t Send

Email is still one of the most popular ways to scam people. Many of us have already received one of those famous “I’m a foreign Prince/Princess and I want to give you money” emails. Compromised links, phishing, and various other strategies can be used and abused with email. However, it can be difficult for scammers to obtain enough email addresses to run their scams.

Email companies have wisened up. They know unscrupulous parties want to use their services to scam email users. As such, they look for suspicious activity, such as a new address suddenly sending out huge numbers of emails. Now, many scammers will try to hack emails in order to secretly send out letters. This way, they can seize control of established email accounts and send out scam emails without tripping monitoring tools.

They can also scam your friends and family. If you received an emergency email from an address that you didn’t recognize asking for money, you’d probably say no. An email from a sibling, close friend, or relative? Now you’re much more likely to send along cash.

For businesses, a hacker might send bogus sales offers to customers, like get 85% off! The customer clicks on a link but is directed to a bogus website where the hackers can steal their credit card info or other sensitive data. Phishing?

Every so often you should check your sent folder for any emails you don’t remember sending. Also, many email providers provide a way for you to see the last several logins for your account. If you find a login from a different country, or from a different operating system, you should be worried. Let’s say you use a Windows PC and an Apple phone, but there’s a login (or attempted login) from a Linux-based PC. That might have been caused by someone trying to hijack your account.

Social Media Messages and Invites That You Didn’t Send

Hackers change with the times. Many hackers will use the above tactics but instead of hacking your email, they will take over your social media accounts. They then  invite your friends to like, follow, or buy certain things, or otherwise use your business or personal social media account for malicious purposes.

If friends or family complain about invites, take note. Did you send those invites? Some social media platforms also offer “activity logs” that show what you’ve been doing. Check them and see if anything is out of order.

Finally, some hackers will steal your identity rather than your profile. They will download pictures of you or your business and set up fake accounts. Every once in awhile you should conduct a search using your personal name and business name. If there is a seeming duplicate, it may well be a hacker.

Unknown Files or Software Installed

Pay attention to the software you install on your computer and website. To the best of your ability, you should refrain from installing a lot of software, especially if it’s not from a trusted source, such as Microsoft. Often, viruses are packaged in legitimate looking software and plugins.

More worrisome, malware can in some cases install itself on your computer without any legitimate authorization. If strange software is being installed, it may be malware. If you’re unsure, you can always delete the software, or conduct an Internet search to see if the software is legitimate.

Changed Passwords

If a password that you know is right suddenly isn’t working, you’ve likely been hacked. If this has happened, it’s important to regain control immediately. Do not wait. Contact the relevant service company, say Google or Facebook, then go through the steps to recover your accounts.

It’s smart, by the way, to enable two-factor authentication. This ensures that any would be hackers attempting to reset your password will also require additional verification, such as your phone number. The more valuable the asset, the more necessary it is to protect it with two-factor authentication. Your business sales website, for example, should probably require two factor login.