It’s a busy day. Someone called off sick. There’s an upset customer on the phone. You’re trying to figure out what’s wrong when you see an urgent email come through. It’s not until you click on the link that you notice the strange email address in the header. A window opens and that anxiety you’ve been feeling all day drops like a rock into the pit of your stomach.
Now what do you do?
Panic! We’re kidding. Telling you not to panic is not going to work because that’s going to be the first thing you do. However, once you get through that immediate moment of all consuming dread, there are two things you need to do.
Step 1: Get the computer off the network. Typically, this means unplugging the network cable from the back of the computer or the side of the laptop. And if it’s a laptop, you will also need to turn off the WiFi. For most laptops, you can turn off the WiFi with a button or combination of buttons on the keyboard. If you’re not sure, hold the power button down until the computer turns off.
Step 2: Call your IT Support company. A computer that has been compromised cannot be trusted until it has been restored to a safe state. This typically will involve formatting the computer and reinstalling all software and data. We cannot stress enough the importance of making sure the computer is in a safe state before putting it back on your network.
But How do You Know if You’ve been Hacked?
Many people labor under the false belief that they are not important enough to be hacked. This is categorically false. Every piece of your personal information has value on the dark web – user names, passwords, contact lists, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, and websites visited, to name but a few. Hackers are always developing new and innovative ways to steal your information because it makes them money.
Once you accept that you are a target, there are telltale signs that you’ve been hacked. Some are obvious and others are subtle, but none of them should be ignored. Below is a list of common occurrences that could indicate that you’ve been hacked and some recommendation for how to handle it.
A Ransomware Message Pops-up on the Screen
By far one of the worst messages you can see on the computer screen. The only solution here is to wipe the computer and restore the backup. If you don’t have a backup, your choices are to accept the loss of data or pay the ransom, with the understanding that paying may not restore your data and the hackers will continue to target you. The key to defeating this hack is to make sure you always have a good backup.
Someone Contacts you and Tells You that You've Been Hacked
This one is tricky. It’s rare for hackers to initiate contact if they have not made at least some ingress into your systems. Obviously, figuring out if you’ve been hacked and how badly is the first thing you should do, and that means initiating your emergency response plan.
An Urgent Antivirus Message Locks-up Your Web Browser
First and foremost, you should know which anti-virus program you are using. If the message is from your antivirus, it should be informational, telling you what actions had been taken – your antivirus will never lock up your computer or ask for any type of credentials from you. If it’s not your anti-virus program, it locks up your browser, or provides you with a tech support number to call, it’s fake. Best case scenario, force close by pushing CTRL – Shift – ESC to bring up task manager and closing all browsers. Afterwards, open the browser and hopefully the message will not return. Worst case scenario, your computer has been compromised (see Steps 1&2 above).
New Tool Bars/Unexpected Software Installs/Random Popups
All of these are common signs that your computer has been compromised. While they appear to be simple annoyances, these types of hacks can be far more malevolent. Awareness is key here. If you see software or a toolbar you didn’t install, uninstall it. They can redirect your searches, cause popups, or otherwise prompt you to click on links that will install ever more malicious software.
An Online Password Suddenly Stops Working
Yes, passwords can be hard to remember, especially since you need them for everything. As a result, we tend to use the same passwords for many sites. If that password stops working there’s a good chance that it’s been compromised, likely because you unknowingly fell for an authentic-looking phishing scam. If this happens, not only do you have to contact the site that has been compromised to change your password, but that password needs to be changed at all sites where it has been used.
Your Mouse Pointer Moves by Itself and Makes Selections
While there are software and hardware issues that can cause a mouse pointer to drift, if it is making selections or moving between programs, you have been hacked. It can be useful to watch what is happening to see what they are after, but don’t let yourself be compromised further, follow steps 1&2 above. If possible, log into another computer, and immediately check your financial accounts and change all of your passwords. Yes, that could be a big job, but to keep yourself from being exploited, it’s necessary.
Your Friends Receive Social Media Invitations that You Didn't Send
This is so common that we’ve all seen it before. Invitations from friends with whom you’ve already connected. Maybe they started a new page. Maybe they accidentally unfriended you. Maybe its something much more malicious. Hackers try to steal or take over social media sites because they can send malicious links that appear to come from a trusted source. You don’t want to be the reason that your friends have their identity stolen. If this happens to you or anyone you know, send alerts, change your password, if possible, enable two factor authentication. The internet is scary enough without having friends and connections being impersonated.
Awareness is the Best Cure
Having antivirus or anti-malware programs is helpful at preventing hackers from compromising your computer, but they are not infallible. Being aware of these common signs that you’ve been hacked will help to ensure that even if you do get hacked, you will be able to mitigate the damage. A lack of awareness or failure to act can be the difference between the annoyance of having one computer go down for a short while and having an entire network and all associated backups corrupted.
I’ve always had a love of working with technology, being fortunate enough to have grown up with a grandfather who taught me how to fix things for myself and not be afraid to jump in and get my hands dirty. Over the last three decades I’ve worked as a technician, trainer, technical writer, and manager with small businesses, enterprise level organizations, and government, picking up a lot of skills on my journey. In addition, I’m an author, having published multiple works available online and in print.