Monday, June 6, 2011

Recently it has been widely reported, high profile users of Gmail - including US government officials, reporters and political activists - have had their email accounts hacked. This wasn't a sophisticated attack against Google's systems, but rather a cleverly-crafted HTML email which pointed to a Gmail phishing page. Victims would believe that they had been sent an attachment, click on the link, and be greeted by what appeared to be Gmail's login screen. Before you knew it, your Gmail username and password could be in the hands of unauthorised parties.

So, what steps should you take to reduce the chances of your Gmail account being hacked?
1.     Set up Two step verification
2.     Check if your Gmail messages are being forwarded without your permission
3.     Where is your Gmail account being accessed from?
4.     Choose a unique, hard-to-crack password
5.     Secure your computer

1. Set up Two step verification
The hackers who broke into high profile Gmail accounts grabbed usernames and passwords. So, an obvious thing to do would be to make Gmail require an extra piece of information before allowing anybody to access your account.
Google provides a facility called "two step verification" to Gmail users, which provides that extra layer of security. It requires you to be able to access your mobile phone when you sign into your email account - as they will be sending you a magic "verification" number via SMS.

The advantage of this approach - which is similar to that done by many online banks - is that even if cybercriminals manage to steal your username and password, they won't know what your magic number is because they don't have your phone.
Google has made two step verification easy to set up.

Once you're set up, the next time you try to log into Gmail you'll be asked for your magic number after entering your username and password. Your mobile phone should receive an SMS text message from Google containing your verification number.

2. Check if your Gmail messages are being forwarded without your permission


Gmail gives you the ability to forward your emails to another email address. There are situations where this might be handy, of course, but it can also be used by hackers to secretly read the messages you receive.
Go into your Gmail account settings, and select the "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab. If your emails are being forwarded to another address, then you will see something like the following:

That's fine if you authorised for your emails to be forwarded to that email address, but a bad thing if you didn't. Hackers want to break into your account not just to see what email you've received up until their break-in. Ideally, they would like to have ongoing access to your email, even if you change your password or enable two step verification. That's why it's so important to check that no-one has sneakily asked for all of your email to be forwarded to them.

3. Where is your Gmail account being accessed from?
At the bottom of each webpage on Gmail, you'll see some small print which describes your last account activity. This is available to help you spy if someone has been accessing your account at unusual times of day (for instance, when you haven't been using your computer) or from a different location.

Clicking on the "Details" option will take you to a webpage describing the type of access and the IP address of the computer which logged your email account. Although some of this data may appear nerdy, it can be a helpful heads-up - especially if you spot a computer from another country has been accessing your email.

4. Choose a unique, hard-to-crack password


You should never use the same username and password on multiple websites. It's like having a skeleton key which opens every door - if they grab your password in one place they can try it in many other places.
Also, you should ensure that your password is not a dictionary word, and is suitably complex that it's hard to break with a dictionary attack. Don't delay, be sensible and make your passwords more secure today

And once you've chosen a safer password - keep it safe! That means, don't share it with anyone else and be very careful that you're typing it into the real Gmail login screen, not a phishing site. Check this video.

5. Secure your computer
You need to properly secure your computer with up-to-date anti-virus software, security patches and so forth. If you don't, you're risking hackers planting malicious code on your computer which could spy upon you and, of course, your email.
You always want to be certain that your computer is in a decent state of health before you log into a sensitive online account, such as your email or bank account. That's one of the reasons why I would always be very nervous about using a computer in a cybercafe or hotel lobby. You simply don't know what state the computer is in, and who might have been using it before.

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