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Solutions | 5 min read

Computer Hacked? How to Know and How to Prevent It

Nathan Distel
Written by Nathan Distel

“WARNING: Security Alert!”
“Hacking Detected …”

When it comes to a computer hack, signs like the above messages are clear. However, a computer hack is rarely that obvious. On the contrary, most cyberattacks and data breaches fly under the radar and go undetected for a while before the victim realizes what happened.

If you’re wondering what to do if your computer has been hacked, we’ll share some tell-tale signs of hacking and tips to prevent it with a proactive cybersecurity strategy. First, let’s review a computer hack example. 

Share Our Cybersecurity Tips for Employees Infographic 

A Real-Life Ransomware Attack Example 

A customer called our Help Desk because she couldn’t open a spreadsheet on her server’s shared drive and noticed the file extension changed from .xls to .payday. That was a red flag of a ransomware digital virus, which was confirmed by our Managed IT specialists. 

A member of our support team logged on and found that 156,000 files on the company’s data server and 2,282 files on the terminal server had already been corrupted and encrypted. The following text file was discovered: 

all your files have been encrypted
want return files?
write on email: 

This type of ransomware spreads through emails or weblinks that look like they’re from legitimate businesses, including fake tracking notices from FedEx and U.P.S. Once inside a network, the virus spreads from one system to the next, usually through mapped shared drives. This attack didn’t expose personal data like credit cards, Social Security numbers or medical files, so there was no risk of a HIPAA breach or identity theft. But as it spread, the software locked up computer files behind unbreakable encryption.  

Ransomware can do incredible damage, and this was among the worst types of ransomware we’d seen. Thankfully, we ran hourly backups for the customer so they could recover from almost any type of disaster. We implemented their Continuity247 Backup and Disaster Recovery (BDR) solution to restore the organization’s servers back to 10 a.m. that morning — a time before the infection occurred.  

Within an hour of discovering the attack, the company resumed work using a backup copy of their environment. If the infection had gone unnoticed or this company had not been running hourly backups, the attack could have been much more devastating or resulted in incredibly costly legal ramifications 

View Top Cybersecurity Risk Assessment Tools 

7 Signs Your Computer Has Been Hacked 

The example above — ransomware — is just one kind of cyberattack. Our Managed IT experts often help battle spyware, hacks and other modern attacks as well. So, how do you know if someone is hacking you? 

Watch for these seven common signs that a computer, network or organization has been hacked: 

  1. Applications Appear That You Didn’t Install
  2. Unusual Disk Activity
  3. Friends and Contacts Receive Strange Messages From You
  4. Passwords Don’t Work
  5. Unwanted Browser Toolbars, Search Redirection & Popups
  6. Unwanted Software Installations
  7. Strange Network Traffic Patterns

1. Applications Appear That You Didn’t Install 

When unknown programs or apps run on your computer, you should immediately suspect that an intruder gained access. The apps may appear to be legitimate, which can be confusing. 

For instance, there are fake antivirus messages that automatically scan a device and claim to find malware infections. Do what you can to get rid of the malicious software by going through your installed apps and uninstalling anything suspicious. 

2. Unusual Disk Activity 

A hacker may be able to control your device remotely, without your permission. If you see your cursor move or your mouse click, it likely means someone else is controlling it, especially if applications are being opened. This attack is dangerous, so immediately disconnect from the internet or LAN. 

Also, listen to your computer. If the hard drive or cooling fan whirs incessantly, it could mean malware is looking for data to damage or steal. It may be time for a cybersecurity audit and checkup. 

3. Friends and Contacts Receive Strange Messages From You 

A sign you’ve likely been hacked is a program using your contact list to send phishing emails or send messages through social media accounts. Watch your “sent” folders; if you notice emails or posts you didn’t make, regain control of an account by following an incident response plan. If needed, get professional help, and always secure your online accounts with hardware-based two-factor authentication.  

4. Passwords Won’t Work 

If you suddenly notice you’ve been denied access to your computer, you’re likely not being forgetful. Your device might have been hacked and your security compromised. 

A hacker may have broken into your computer and changed your account’s login details, including your username and password. It could get worse from there by signaling that your business or personal information was compromised either from your devices or from another source — perhaps from a hacked retailer, bank account or web merchant. 

Unfortunately, many people don’t know they’ve been hacked until they get an alert from their bank about unusual activity. Be vigilant and watch for online activity or purchases you haven’t authorized. 

5. Unwanted Browser Toolbars, Search Redirection & Popups

If your browser settings are odd or the browser has new toolbars and plugins, it could open you up to malicious applications, websites and search engine redirection, which is what cybercriminals use to generate traffic and make money. 

When annoying popup ads refuse to close or go away, it’s typically a bug and not a feature on a website. 

6. Unwanted Software Installations 

Unwanted and unexpected software installations are another common symptom of a cyber hack. Most modern malware programs are Trojans and worms and install along with legitimate programs. 

Read software license agreements to determine if they’ll be installing more than one program, and keep your software up to date. Opt out of other programs, if possible, or disable unrecognized programs after you check your installed programs. 

7. Strange Network Traffic Patterns 

Seeing an expected file transfer to a website in a country you don’t do business in? Yes, that’s strange. What should you do if you see any suspicious activity or transfers? Kill the network and internet connection and begin an incident response investigation. 

If more companies knew their legitimate network traffic patterns, fewer would be compromised, so there are tools to help you. You can either check out free, open-source alternatives or find a trusted commercial option that’s done the hard work already. Consult with an IT expert to know your options and how to use them. 

Preventing a Computer Hack is Better than Curing It 

Prevention is far less painful than dealing with a cyberattack. Using common sense and recognizing when something is “off” is a critical step, but it’s no substitute for a security system.  

Know what type of antivirus software you run so you know what an authentic alert looks like, and don’t click on suspicious pop-ups; it’s often a trap! Remember that security cannot be a “set it and forget it” prevention initiative. Many types of attacks are subtle, difficult to identify and created by sophisticated hackers who are upping their game as time goes on. 

Without preventive measures such as firewalls, strong passwords, SIEM/SOC tools and other safeguards, hackers can sneak into a network again and again, collecting sensitive and valuable information. How? An older printer, for instance, that lacks modern security or isn’t password-protected becomes a backdoor for hackers to steal confidential information. 

Subtle or sophisticated attacks require the right protection to spot them. Here are two systems that work together: 

  • Network Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS)— An automated monitoring and alert tool that detects network intrusions and provides a warning of an attack 
  • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) — A system that prevents or stops an attack. IPS logs — which should cover network devices, firewalls, operating systems, authentication and access control systems, applications and security software — need to be regularly monitored for signs of attacks, intrusions and other security-related events 

A reliable technology management partner can be your most useful, proactive force for preventing computer hacks. The IT experts at Elevity can help you run a full security sweep of your network, printers, computers and mobile devices to identify threats and weaknesses. 

Contact Elevity for an expert Business Technology Needs Assessment and to learn more about how our Managed IT services can help secure your local or Cloud-based IT infrastructure. 



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