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How Hackers Used Malware to Steal 40 Million Credit Card Numbers from Target

Target hackingYou probably have read the headlines by now: computer hackers stole 40 million credit card numbers from Target customers. That number alone boggles the mind. That’s every single Target customer who used a credit card in a store from Black Friday until earlier this week.

According to KrebsOnSecurity, the stolen credit and debit card accounts "have been flooding underground black markets in recent weeks, selling in batches of one million cards and going for anywhere from $20 to more than $100 per card."

Of course, this is not the first time that a major retailer has had its confidential data compromised. It seems that every time we turn around, we hear about another company whose databases have been hacked.

Sadly, these huge corporate data breaches have become all-too-familiar at this point.

What’s Different About the Target Data Breach

What you may not know is how these online thieves got away with it. They used one of the oldest tricks in the computer hacker’s playbook: malware.

These cyber thieves either convinced a Target employee to click on a malware link or somehow downloaded malware to the Target network that allowed them to track the credit numbers of literally tens of millions of people.

You probably have heard about malware because you’ve done something similar. Either you clicked on a suspicious link or file in an email, visited an untrustworthy website, or installed software that was infected.

If your computer has ever displayed an annoying pop-up ad that won’t go away, or has ever had a virus that slowed it to a crawl, then you have been the victim of malware.

Malware attacks are growing exponentially, and are showing no signs of slowing down. New malware attacks for computers have doubled since 2011, and increased over 44 times for mobile devices in 2012 alone.

Malware is not going away any time soon, so we better learn to protect ourselves.

More About Malware

Malware is short for malicious software. It is software that is designed to disrupt your computer, gather your personal information, and gain unauthorized access to your computer’s files.

Malware includes computer viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware, dishonest adware, ransomware, and any other malicious software.

Review this list to learn about programs intended to harm your computer -- and possibly -- steal your confidential information:

  • A computer virus is a program that can replicate itself and spread from one computer to another via a network or the Internet. It may be harmless and do nothing but replicate itself, or it could cause a program to operate incorrectly or corrupt your computer's memory.
  • A Trojan horse is a program which contains malicious or harmful code inside seemingly harmless programs or data so that it can get control and do damage to your computer, such as ruining your hard drive.
  • Spyware is a type of malware which collects small pieces of information about your without your knowledge, such as your surfing habits and sites you have visited, as well as your credit card information.
  • Adware, or advertising-supporting software, is any software that automatically displays advertisements, usually pop-ups. The purpose of adware is to generate revenue for its author, and while by itself it’s harmless, some adware may be mixed with spyware.
  • Ransomware hijacks the use of your computer until you pay the creator of the malware a certain fee. The number of ransomware scams alone have doubled in the past year.

How to Stop Malware

The best way to prevent your computer from getting infected with malware is to have a good firewall and strong, up to date antivirus software installed on your system. Also, a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi can encrypt all of your online communications, which makes it harder for cybercriminals to get their hands on your private data.

Don’t visit or click on any questionable websites, don’t open any questionable email attachments, don’t download any torrents or shady software and make sure your computer system and plug-ins are up to date.

And definitely don’t infect your computer with malware if you work for a huge retail chain like Target.


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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Technical Document Specialist. He has worked in high tech for over 15 years, and lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and two cats.

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