How suspicion and betrayed trust can lead to computer hijacking and spying: Internet Scambusters #467
Computer hijacking is a key element of Internet crime. But what about when the hijacking is done by a friend or family member?
While most of us can be confident of the trustworthiness of those who are near and dear, that trust can be betrayed when relationships become strained or broken.
In this week's issue we show just how vulnerable your computer might be in these circumstances and how to protect yourself.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!
When Computer Hijacking is a Friends and Family Affair
We've written many times about computer hijacking, when crooks use viruses or networking skills to hack into your PC to steal information or monitor your activities.
But a more sinister variation has surfaced recently, where computers are hijacked by so-called friends or family members to spy on your activities.
Think it couldn't happen to you? Well, just to give a recent example:
A Delaware man was convicted in October of putting a spyware program on his father's computer to capture passwords so he could read his emails.
There was a more disturbing element to the story -- the father actually became a murder victim, though there was no suggestion in court that the two aspects were connected.
However, in the course of his spying, the son discovered his father had been having an affair.
And even though the son had planted the spyware with his mother's approval, he was still convicted of unlawfully using the computer.
Then, in a recent article by our friend Leo Notenboom on his Ask Leo blog, a reader reported how her boyfriend had set up her computer and was still able to access it, long after the relationship had finished.
Others, it seems, had similar experiences.
Of course, there are circumstances when spying programs may be used legitimately (although some would still question their use).
We're thinking here of programs that enable parents to monitor their children's online activities or companies monitoring employees' computer activities.
But the plain fact is that it's perfectly possible for a friend or relative, or indeed, anyone who handles your PC, to spy on your actions if they have a motive for doing so -- or if they're just control freaks.
The two most common ways they would do this would be:
- If they ever have unaccompanied access to your PC that enables them to install monitoring programs.
- If they know your username and passwords. They don't even need access to your computer -- they can simply log on to your accounts or online email servers and see what you've been up to.
The solution to this type of computer spying is simple -- never give other people your passwords, and change the ones you have frequently.
But real computer hijacking is more difficult to deal with.
The most common form of these "inside jobs" is the installation of spyware and keyloggers.
If someone has access to your PC, they can install a monitoring program that could be totally invisible to you.
Again, they don't necessarily need to be physically located with your computer to do this. On Windows machines they can also gain access remotely if you invite them to do so.
This is done by using a feature called Remote Assistance where you give permission for someone to access your PC via the Internet so they can troubleshoot problems.
However, you can't do this unknowingly. You have to agree to let them have access.
Either way, here are some of the things the top-selling computer monitoring program claims it can do:
- Record passwords
- Watch email
- Operate web cameras
- Capture full screen images
- Upload and download files
- Produce reports on websites you've visited
The producers of this program, which appears to be perfectly legal by the way, also point out that it can be installed remotely, is virtually impossible to detect and equally difficult to remove.
It can even tell you if someone found the program and tried to log into it.
Your only real defense against this type of program is Internet security software that can detect key loggers.
That, however, is not infallible, but having a couple of extra anti-keylogging checkers that you can manually run periodically can reduce the risk of one of these programs remaining untraced.
You can find these by doing an online search for "anti keylogger."
In extreme circumstances, the best preventive measure you can take is to use a program that resets your PC every day to how it was when it was first set up (assuming it was set up by you or someone you trust).
But if you have reason to believe you may have one of these programs installed, the only way to be sure of getting rid of it is to completely wipe the hard drive clean and reinstall the operating system (making sure you back up your data first).
If this is beyond your technical capability, then get a trustworthy person or professional to do it for you.
One final thing, remember that whenever you use a PC at home, it's perfectly possible for another user in your household to see which Internet sites you visited by simply clicking on the "History" setting in your browser.
Also, if you didn't shut down when you finished or if your computer is set up to automatically log you into certain accounts, another user might be able to access them and see what you've been doing or buying.
So, if you have reasons to want to maintain confidentiality on your home PC, always shut down after use, password protect sensitive files, change your passwords frequently, clear your Internet history and clear your cookies -- the fragments of computer code that automatically sign you on to your accounts.
You can find out how to do these last two things via either your computer's security settings or its help file.
We're sorry if all this computer spying stuff sounds a bit alarming. After all, most of us have friends and families whose trustworthiness is beyond reproach and beyond doubt.
But if you ever find yourself in a situation where that trust is in danger of being lost, at least you now know the risks of this type of computer hijacking -- and what you can do about it.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!