Get hacked in southern California

It was about one year ago that we used this space to write about a suspicious e-mail sent to my inbox from a former student.

The student was stuck in London with family and had been robbed at gun point but thankfully still had her passport, according to the correspondence I received. She was asking for a short-term loan to buy a plane ticket to return to the United States.

As I read the note, my reporter’s skepticism — or should I say common sense — kicked in. Everything about the e-mail seemed strange, and a quick phone call to her home revealed that she was safe and sound in Fort Wayne. In fact, she has never even been to London.

Someone, somehow, had hacked into her account or gained access to her e-mail via a social media site. She had no idea someone had even entered her e-mail account and sent the message asking for money, and she was unsure how many people might have received it or if anyone had responded.

I created my first e-mail account in 1997 as a junior in high school and have been online for the past 14 years — almost half my life.

The only time one of my accounts has ever been “hacked” occurred in November when a mysterious post appeared on my Facebook profile that read, “Justin Peeper is so lucky that he has such an amazing sister like Leslee Peeper.” Turns out I forgot to log out when using my parents’ computer and my youngest sister thought it would be funny to write a post.

Last month, however, my 14-year span of never having been hacked came to an end while on a trip to California.

Turns out someone gained access to my e-mail account and sent a link to a Viagra site. The message went to everyone in my contact list — a couple hundred people at least.

I didn’t realize the message had been sent until News-Banner publisher Mark Miller, Wells County Public Library director Stephanie Davis, and Matt Day of rural Wells County wrote back to alert me.

I had arrived in California the night before with a colleague to take a group of students to a national journalism convention in Anaheim. I used the hotel’s wireless Internet that night to connect to my e-mail account to let our school’s administrators know we had arrived.

Since I was online, I also accessed my other personal e-mail account and a social media site. I suspect my account might have been compromised via that connection, but I’m still not sure.

I quickly changed many of my passwords in hopes that would prevent the culprit from sending any more spam messages. My biggest concern, however, was that the link could install a virus on anyone’s computer who clicked on it. I also e-mailed everyone on my contact list to warn them about the message, and I hope they saw it before clicking on the suspicious link.

Thankfully, changing all my passwords seems to have worked, as the hackers have not been able to access my account since then.

With the Internet, e-mail and social-networking sites consuming so much of our time, this occurrence served as a good reminder of the importance of taking extra steps to protect your identity when online, especially when creating passwords.

Detective Sgt. Steve Cale of the Bluffton Police Department gave me some good advice about a year ago when I called him after receiving the suspicious message from the former student. That advice is still noteworthy today.

“They caution people when they set up passwords for any account to make it very unique,” Cale said. “Don’t make it your last name backwards; don’t make it your birth date; don’t make it your address; don’t make it your phone number — things the average person may be able to determine about you. You are supposed to use a very unique password, using upper case, lower case, numbers and symbols.”

During that same conversation, Cale encouraged all computer users to remember to log off the computer after using a password-protected site, too. He also cautioned against writing password information on sticky notes and attaching them to the computer or putting them underneath the keyboard. Instead, Cale said it’s possible to buy computer programs that store password information and then protect that file with another password.

While protecting your password is key, it’s also essential to avoid clicking on suspicious links that come from even those you know. I’m also more wary of accessing wireless networks with insecure connections when I connect to the Internet.

I do feel sorry for anyone who wastes his time invading others’ privacy by sending bogus links to pharmaceutical sites for male products. It’s good to know most of us have more important ways of filling our time.

Now, let’s see if I can make it another 14 years without one of my accounts being hacked.

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