The Secure Times

An online forum of the ABA Section of Antitrust Law's Privacy and Information Security Committee

FTC Issues Consumer Advice re: Hacked Email and Social Networking Accounts

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On August 1, the FTC provided consumers with a new resource, Hacked Email,  to help them identify a hacked email or social media account, recover their account from a hack, and prevent it from happening again.  The need for such guidance is highlighted by statistics such as these:

  • Over 60,000 compromised account logins occur every day on Facebook, according to Sophos.  
  • 62 percent of users with compromised email accounts were unaware of how their accounts had been compromised, according to a study by Commtouch, State of Hacked Email Accounts.
  • Of the third of users who noticed their account was compromised, 50 percent did not know until their friends told them. (id)

Given over half of all hacked accounts are used to send spam to promote a product (according to Commtouch) and many others are used to promote scams and spread malware resulting in loss of personal information, security credentials and financial assets, the FTC has a vested interest in protecting consumers from hacked accounts. Here are ways it suggests consumers can start tackling the problem:

  • To identify a hacked account, users should pay attention to:messages they did not send (or social media posts they did not write) but appear to originate from their account; an empty sent-mail folder (indicating a hacker sent multiple emails from the account then deleted the sent-mail folder’s contents or set it to not save emails in order to cover his or her tracks); or email from other accounts, which the user cannot open.
  • To remediate a hacked account, users should ensure their security software is up to date and delete malware; change their passwords (tips for creating strong passwords are included); contact their account service provider for account-specific advice on account restoration; check account settings to ensure messages are not being forwarded to an unfamiliar address or no new “friends” have been added to a social networking account; and inform friends and family so they don’t run the risk of getting hacked themselves by opening emails from the user’s hacked account. By going above and beyond just telling users to change their account password, these tips are likely to be useful to consumers, as, according to Commtouch, most users (42%) do nothing to solve the problem except change their password and 23 percent do nothing at all.
  • To avoid getting hacked again in the future, users should employ unique passwords for financial and other important sites; use two-factor authentication when available; not click on links or open attachments from unknown users; and only download free software from known, trusted sites.  The FTC also gives guidance around using safely using public computers and wi-fi networks.

While the tips are useful to consumers, businesses can also benefit from leveraging the FTC’s consumer-facing tips to educate their employees and customers. For example, given that 29 percent of breaches involved social tactics like phishing (getting employees to click on fake emails) according to the Verizon 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report, one of the FTC’s tips of particular use is that users should avoid clicking on links or open attachments from unknown users.

Hacked Email is one of a series of educational materials consumers can leverage to protect themselves, available at www.onguardonline.gov, which is managed by the FTC in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Guidance on avoiding identity theft, scams and other issues touching on consumer privacy and security is provided on the site.

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Author: Rebecca H. Davis

Asst. General Counsel, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Corporate Affairs and Government Relations

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