Criminal Hackers

Step into the latest action thriller and odds are that you will find a computer hacker.  In some movies, they’re the heroes.  In The Matrix, for example, hackers are brilliant computer programmers who battle to set humanity free from a life of enslavement in a world of simulated reality.  In others, like 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, they’re cyber terrorists who hack into FBI computers and overtake the transportation grid in an attempt to overpower the government.

While the term “hacker” is used by a significant subculture of computer programmers and cyber security experts, for the rest of us, the term has become synonymous with computer criminal.  Malicious hackers, aka “crackers” or “black hats,” break into computer networks, spread viruses and other types of malware, steal confidential information (identity and financial information, Intellectual property, etc.), and commit other kinds of cybercrime.

Many hackers ply their trade to simply test their skills. They prank or sabotage a system (by overloading servers with Denial-of-service attacks, for example), or just vandalize the Internet without thought to financial gain.  Infamous hackers in this category include grad student Robert Morris, whose Morris worm, a self-replicating virus, crippled thousands of computer systems and resulted in millions of dollars of lost productivity.  Morris became the first hacker indicted under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  After serving three years of probation, Morris went on to get his Ph.D. from Harvard and is now a tenured professor at MIT.

Increasingly, however, hacking has become a for-profit venture.  Many of today’s hackers exploit weaknesses — in software, systems, AND people — to access personal computers and the like in order to commit financial fraud or identity/intellectual property theft.  One estimate puts the size of the global black market for this kind of confidential data at $1 trillion – that’s a one followed by 12 zeros.

Entrepreneurial hackers had a banner year in 2011.  In early spring, they stole the records of more than 77 million PlayStation users costing the company two weeks of outage and an estimated $20 million in revenues.  The full cost of the data breach is estimated to be in the billions.  Later in the spring, hackers infiltrated Lockheed Martin, one of the U.S.’s largest defense contractors.  Then, in June 2011, Citigroup announced that hackers had stolen financial data (names, account numbers, contact information) from over 200,000 of its customers.

And lest you think that all hackers are focused on corporations, there are also plenty who work on a smaller scale to scam ordinary people like you.  They set up Phishing schemes to gain access to your personal and financial information to commit identity theft or sell it to others who will.  They also break into your computer and install malware programs.

So what do hackers and their evil schemes have to do with deceptive advertising, you ask?  Well, guess how hackers lure you into opening an e-mail containing a virus, or clicking on a link to a computer worm, or downloading malware, or revealing confidential information?  Ding, ding, ding!!!!  Are you connecting the dots now?  The examples of blatantly false and misleading advertising used by hackers and scammers for nefarious purposes on the Internet are endless – spam e-mails and pop-ups advertise everything from Viagra and Oxycontin to free porn sites, bogus stock offerings, the latest gaming essentials, winning sweepstakes, work-at-home offers, and ironically, even computer virus protection software.  There is literally something to tempt everyone and all it takes is one unsuspecting click.

What can you do to protect yourself online?  Arm yourself with information by reading more about Privacy & Security.

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Short for “malicious software”; includes viruses and spyware that steal personal information, send spam, and commit fraud. (See Badware.)

Creative products that have commercial value, including copyrighted property like books, photos, and songs

Make a website or internet resource unavailable or non-functional, generally by bombarding it with traffic/bogus requests or disrupting components

Breaking into a computer or network by evading or disabling security measures

A method of tricking consumers into handing over their personal information by posing as a legitimate entity.

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