CONSUMER FORUM

Ten “hacks” you never suspected

Posted Dec. 17, 2011, at 1:11 p.m.

While some journalists in the United Kingdom are under a microscope for allegedly hacking into voicemail accounts, people in the United States may wonder how much hacking is really happening. The answer is likely along the lines of “a heck of a lot more than you would like to admit.”

The story from the U.K. points out the ease with which some carriers’ cellular voicemail systems can be compromised. (We’ll leave the entire ethics issue for the courts to settle.) The hard truth is that landline voicemail operates much the same way, and so it is subject to intrusion as well.

The lesson for the savvy consumer: make sure to change from a simple, default password to a “strong” password, consisting of letters and numbers that hackers will be less likely to guess.

Voicemail break-ins represent just one of the top 10 hacking threats identified by Security News Daily ( www.securitynewsdaily.com). Another perhaps shocking revelation involves the Bluetooth wireless car kit that allows busy people to remain in constant contact while driving. These units can be hacked, and they too should have the strongest possible passwords to discourage such activity.

While we’re on the subject of cars, many are being connected with smartphones and wireless data networks. The same technology that lets On-Star locate your car, kill the engine and direct emergency responders to you can be used by criminals to do much nastier things.

The same is true of GPS devices some parents are using to keep track of their children. When hackers intrude, they can follow children virtually wherever they go.

They might even look in on infants in the crib. Older baby monitors have been the targets of drive-by thieves, who hack in and steal audio and video signals from the “nanny-cams.”

Maybe you thought a simple gaming device was free from worry. Wrong. Older portable games, such as Nintendo DS or Nintendo DS Lite, operate only through the very hackable WEP encryption standard to access a Wi-Fi network. Knowledgeable gamers rely on the more robust WPA standard, which makes it a lot tougher for crooks to access your personal network.

If the front door of your home opens with an electronic keypad, the system actually might make your home more susceptible to break-ins. Clever hackers may be able to lift the code from a stolen smartphone; they also might capture the wireless signal when you open the door. Again, security experts recommend strong passwords.

The same threat exists in the case of garage door openers. Thieves can use smartphones to run through commonly used passwords. Sometimes they get lucky; when they do, you could be out of luck, and out of a lot of personal property. The lesson again is to use strong passwords whenever a matter of personal security is involved.

Police and fire officials use infrared technology to control some traffic signals, so emergency responders can get through traffic when necessary. Thieves can use that same technology for their own illicit purposes, although federal law makes it a crime to do so (oh, that’s right, we’re dealing with thieves in the first place, aren’t we?).

One of the scariest applications may target medical implants. Technology geeks got together at a “Black Hat” convention in Las Vegas last summer. One demonstrated the ability to hack into the wireless signals emitted by automatic insulin pumps implanted in patients. About three years ago, other researchers proved they could turn off a heart pacemaker remotely, making some very scary scenarios all too possible.

The key lesson for all of us who use electronic devices: do all we can to make them secure, starting with strong passwords to discourage hacking. To find out what else hackers are doing, visit the British Broadcasting Corp. website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12249624.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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