How Do Hackers Get Credit Card Numbers

In July 2008, hackers broke into a computer at Wyndham Hotels. They stole tens of thousands of customer credit card records, including guest names, card numbers, expiration dates and highly sensitive data from the cards' magnetic stripe.

It a company’s worst nightmare, particularly in the face of an economic downturn, and to make matters worse, Wyndham didn’t realize the theft had occurred until September. The company remains unsure about how many individual credit card accounts were negatively affected by the incident, however, it’s safe to say today most holiday-makers will think twice before paying for their vacation on credit!

So exactly how did such a crime occur? The fraudsters involved in this affair had clearly devised a sophisticated plan to steal the information, but the truth is, thousands of hackers steal credit card information every day, using much simpler tactics.

There are two main strategies hackers use to access credit card information: through password theft, or via a virus or Trojan horse.

Password Theft

Cracking someone’s password is the most common method that hackers use to bypass security software, and access data such as your credit card information.

A password is really just a simple string of letters, numbers and special characters – and, subsequently, there are a finite amount of combinations that can be created. A powerful computer will be able to eventually crack any password, no matter how long or complicated it is, but you can do your best to thwart their efforts.

To protect yourself as a consumer, your best bet is to create the strongest password possible. This means a unique combination of letters and numbers, special characters if you can remember them, and even a mix of lower and upper cases if possible. The stronger your password, the longer it takes for the computer to crack – and the longer it takes to crack, the greater the risk of the hacker getting caught. Easy passwords will get cracked first, so aim for complex, long and unusual combinations.

Worms, Viruses and Trojan Horses

Viruses appear in all shapes and sizes, and have many – mostly nasty – purposes. Some viruses are written to delete your files, and others are written to send out oodles of spam – but the absolute worst viruses will infect your computer and collect valuable information. These are called Trojan Horses.

A Trojan Horse will typically install itself and run covertly in the background, and the user of the computer – that’s you – is none the wiser that it’s even there. It sits silently and collects data on everything you are doing, from logging into your internet banking to making online purchases, and then sends that information back to its creator.

The thing about Trojan horses is that you must open the virus for it to activate – so if you practice extreme caution when web browsing and opening emails, you should be able to avoid an infection.

If you receive an email from ‘Jenny Shields’ with an attachment that says ‘Great_picture.exe’, for example, and you don’t know anyone called Jenny Shields, then delete the email immediately. When surfing the internet, if a bright and flashy pop-up demands your attention to claim a prize, don't click on it – it’s a scam. Practicing common sense will definitely help you avoid becoming a victim.

You should also consider using anti-virus and anti-spyware software to help keep your identity safe. Usually, this software will search for viruses on your computer and in your inbox. It’s available for free, and the protection it offers could save you a lot of time, money and hassle down the track.

David Swan
david.u.swan@gmail.com
www.thinkingmoney.org

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