Hackers ‘R Us

You get an email from Mary Jane, your best friend since third grade. It’s just one line that says “Hey, you’ve got to see this!”, followed by a link to a website. You click on the link. It’s an ad for some kind of fad diet. Weird, why did she send this? The next time you see her you ask. “I didn’t send that!” she says. Oh no, you’ve been hacked!

Yes, it’s true. You may be thinking the hacker is some freak living in his mother’s basement, or a shadowy figure in some remote country. Sadly the hacker is much closer to home. It’s you. “What? That’s crazy, why would I hack myself?”

It all started with that email, which you now know did not come from your friend. It came from someone who happened to have both her and your email address in her address book. She got hacked and the malware (unwanted bad software, commonly called a virus) installed on her computer and started sending emails from and to every name on her contact list. By choosing every possible sender and recipient from that list, the odds of someone actually opening it and clicking the link are much higher. You were fine up until you clicked or tapped on that link.

When you did that you got sent to a site that was probably itself hacked. The web page that loaded contained a program written in a language called JavaScript. It’s invisible and starts executing as soon as the page loads. The goal is to install itself into your computer and immediately start looking for email addresses to send itself to. So when you clicked the link in the email, you unknowingly hacked yourself.

We’ve all got that friend who has too much time and an Internet connection. Every day you get new emails with links to YouTube videos, pictures with the latest meme, and other trivia. Sometimes they are funny enough that you click on them just to see what the latest discovery is, and BOOM!

Getting rid of malware is hard, and ultimately expensive. I’ve seen people actually go out and buy a new computer because they were hacked. That’s pretty extreme, and not necessary, but getting a geek to clean out a virus can also be so expensive that a new computer is a viable option. The best practice is to avoid getting hacked in the first place.

There are plenty of websites with tips on securing your computer. This one is typical, and as good a place as any to start. You can do a lot just by being careful. Assume that any email containing a link might be bad. If it’s from a sender who normally would not send that type of email, if the wording is strange or awkward, or if it’s from someone that you would normally trust, like your bank, don’t click. Double check with the friend to confirm she sent it. If it’s the bank or some other trusted source, don’t click the link. Instead open your browser and go to the website for that source. Remember that no legitimate organization will ask you for your password or other login information via email, or even by phone for that matter.

By virtue of numbers alone, Windows computers are far more likely to get hacked. That’s because there are so many more of them, making them rich targets. Macs can also be hacked, though it’s usually by means of embedding the malware in software you have downloaded. “Pirated” software, programs that are normally expensive but are found free or cheap online, is a favorite place for this. Be vigilant and keep your computer’s operating system and programs updated. There are huge numbers of people making malware with the goal of getting money from you, either directly or by using your computer to do it. Don’t be that person frantically sending out emails saying “Don’t open any emails or Facebook messages from me. I’ve been hacked!”

RSS – a nice alternative

Years ago many people started their day with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. Newspapers have all but disappeared, and connected individuals read Facebook with their coffee. We’ll leave the debate about the validity of the information posted there to others, but there’s no disputing that your morning news is heavily seasoned with advertising. There is another alternative.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary if you’re old school. It’s a kind of custom newspaper that is built just for you, every day. Like most of us, you probably have a number of websites that you visit daily, many with blogs like this one. You probably just want to see what’s new. Most blogs feature what is called a “feed”. It’s like having a service that goes through all the newspapers, clipping out only those articles that interest you. You can read them whenever you like, on a computer, phone, or tablet. We’ve been using RSS for years, and now that we’re blogging we want to let you in on the secret. To get started with RSS here’s what you’ll need:

  • A feed subscription – this is like a magazine subscription, except it’s free. You subscribe by selecting the feed for your blog. Some blogs, like this one, will have a prominent button like the orange one in the sidebar, that you can click to subscribe. Others may have a link, sometimes at the bottom of the web page.
  • A feed aggregator – this is a service that keeps track of all your subscriptions and making sure that you have the latest post in each one. Some, like Feedly that I use, have a free option. Free almost always means ads, but not the focused and intrusive ones that you’ll find on Facebook. Other aggregators may charge by the month or year. Whether you use a free service or pay, you need one of them to do the heavy lifting for you.
  • An RSS Reader – Readers are specialized software that contact your aggregator for the latest information. There are dozens available, for every type of computer, phone, or tablet. Most aggregators also have a web-based reader or app available to subscribers. Google “RSS reader” for options.

Once you have the basic tools you can start looking for RSS icons or links on the sites you visit most. Most readers will present the articles in a list with a brief synopsis. You can click or tap to go to the full article on the web. This saves you a lot of time and you won’t miss anything. It’s a great way to start the day with your morning cup of java.