Monday, January 06, 2014

Tips for Handling an Email Account you Suspect has been Hacked

Having an email account get hacked is something no one wants to experience.  Unfortunately, the reality is that most people know at least one person who has had their email account hacked.   When an email account gets hacked confusion and fear can prevent you from thinking clearly and acting strategically.  Listed below are some helpful tips if you ever suspect your email account has been hacked.

How do I know if my email has been hacked?  The most common ways people find out their email has been hacked is by getting locked out of their email account because someone else changed their password, or by having friends and family report they have received bizarre and odd timed emails when you know you were not the sender.

The first thing you should do once you find out you have been hacked...Is change the password for the email account in question.  If you still have access to the account, (the person did things from your account but did not change your password), change the password for that email account.  If you are locked out of your email account, use the identification verification process for the email account using the "I forgot my password" feature to gain access to the account so you can change the password.  When changing the password be sure to use a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.  The longer and more complex your password is, the more difficult it is for others to hack your password.  For example, using this password "Cd1Ck&j@n3Run" would be much more difficult to hack than this password "seedickandjanerun". 

Contact all of your contacts.  An important step in preventing the further spread of whatever hack came your way is to let everyone in your contact list know you have been hacked.  This is an important step to prevent your friends, family, and coworkers from also being hacked.  If you have a secondary email account use that account or use the account in question if you have changed the password and are back in control.  The most important part of sending this email is sending the email with a subject line making it clear you are the actual sender.  State something about yourself, use humor if that is how you normally deal with stress, or repeat something you said to the person when you last spoke with them.  Do whatever it takes to make sure the recipient knows it is okay to open the email.  Inside the email be sure to warn them you were hacked and while you hope they did not get emails from you that you did not personally send, you need to make them aware of the possibility their email address was compromised by your account getting hacked.  This will let them know to be careful opening any emails from you until you get everything back under control.  If you do not have contact email addresses handy, consider calling people and warning them personally.

If you think your computer is infected as well...Disable the wireless network adapter or unplug the network cable attached to your computer to take you off the network you are on and prevent further infection.  Next, run an antivirus check against your machine.  If the antivirus is out of date, be sure to update it before taking your machine off of the network if it will update properly.  If the computer is responding and has been infected, try using the antivirus software to remove all infections.  If this does not work, you can try restoring your computer to a previous date if the computer is set to create restore points.  If the computer was not set to create restore points, you can take it to be repaired or copy your data off and re-install your operating system and programs.  If you use a backup solution, your data should be in a safe state and you can push your data back to your computer once your machine is virus free or you rebuild the machine.  In a worst case scenario, if the computer is completely non-responsive, power the machine off until you can get someone who specializes in computer support to help you.

What else do I need to be aware of?  If your email was hacked, then a user id and password combination you use was retrieved.  If you use the same user id and password combination for any other account, you will need to change the password for every one of those accounts as well.  For example, if the email account hacked was and the password was 68chevelle, anywhere you used the user id brian1785 and password 68chevelle should be changed.  Also, think of the emails you receive in the email account that was hacked.  Do you get emails from your bank, mortgage company, rewards credit cards, stores from ordering online, or others?  Any emails sent to that account which you have other user id and password accounts with, should be checked immediately.  Remember, many of these online accounts will store credit card information for you for future ordering.

Check other devices in your house.  Once you have the email account back in your control and have checked your computer for infection, you should also check other any other devices also connected to the same network.  Run virus checks if applicable, check any sent mail folders for suspicious emails, and be sure to update the email password for the infected account if the account was connected to using any of those devices, such as smart phones.

How do I prevent this from happening again?  The best thing you can do to prevent future attacks is:

  1. To be careful when clicking on links in emails and opening emails from sources you do not know or trust.
  2. To be sure to keep sophisticated passwords for email accounts and use different user id and password combinations for as many accounts as you can so one breach does not lead to ten.
  3. To be aware of who is around when you are typing out passwords (shoulder surfing happens more often than you think).
  4. And to periodically check the sent email folders for each email account to be sure only legitimate emails are listed.

Having your email account hacked can be overwhelming, but with action and diligent follow through you can regain control of your account and move forward with confidence.  Sometimes the work to regain an email account is easier than creating a new account, but creating a new email account is always an option as well.

As always, stay safe!

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