What To Do if You Get Blackmail Spam Containing an Old Password

Have you gotten an email message whose Subject line says something like “Change your password immediately! Your account has been hacked.”? If not, it may be only a matter of time before you do. It’s a scary message, especially because it contains one of your passwords, some threats, and a demand for money. Worse, the password is likely one you’ve used in the past—how could the hacker have discovered it? Has your Mac really been taken over?

Relax. There’s nothing to worry about.

This “blackmail spam” has been making the rounds on the Internet recently—we’ve heard from several clients who have received it, and we’ve gotten copies too. The message purports to be from a hacker who has taken over your Mac and installed spyware that has recorded you visiting Web sites that aren’t exactly G-rated. The hacker also claims to have used your Mac’s camera to photograph you while you’re browsing said non-G-rated sites and threatens to share those pictures with your contacts and erase your drive unless you pay a ransom using Bitcoin.

This blackmail spam has raised so many pulses because it backs up its claims by showing a password that you’ve used in the past. Hopefully, it’s not one that you’re still using, because it was extracted from one of the hundreds of password breaches that have occurred over the past decade. Impacted Web sites include big names such as Yahoo, LinkedIn, Adobe, Dropbox, Disqus, and Tumblr—thieves have collectively stolen over 5.5 billion accounts. It’s all too likely that some old password of yours was caught up in one of those thefts.

Concerning as the message sounds, all the details other than your email address and password are completely fabricated. Your Mac has not been hacked. There is no malware spying on your every move. No pictures of you have been uploaded to a remote server. Your hard drive will not be erased. In short, you have nothing to worry about, and you should just mark the message as spam.

However, if you’re still using the password that appeared in the message, that is cause for concern. It means that any automated hacking software could break into the associated account, and it must be a weak password if the bad guys were able to decrypt it from the stolen password files. Go to Have I Been Pwned and search for your email address. If it shows up for any breaches, make sure you’ve changed your password for those accounts.

As always, we recommend that you create a strong, unique password for each of your Web accounts. The easiest way to do this is to rely on a password manager like 1Password or LastPass to generate a random password. Then, when you want to go back to that site, the password manager can log you in automatically. It’s easier and more secure.

If you’re still concerned about your passwords, call us and we can help you get started with stronger security practices.

Have Your Online Passwords Been Stolen? Here’s How to Find Out.

Data breaches have become commonplace, with online thieves constantly breaking into corporate and government servers and making off with millions—or even hundreds of millions!—of email addresses, often along with other personal information like names, physical address, and passwords.

It would be nice to think that all companies properly encrypt their password databases, but the sad reality is that many have poor data security practices. As a result, passwords gathered in a breach are often easily cracked, enabling the bad guys to log in to your accounts. That may not seem like a big deal—who cares if someone reads the local newspaper under your name? But since many people reuse passwords across multiple sites, once one password associated with an email address is known, attackers use automated software to test that combination against many other sites.

This is why we keep beating the drum for password managers like 1Password and LastPass. They make it easy to create and enter a different random password for every Web site, which protects you in two ways.

  • Because password managers can create passwords of any length, you don’t have to rely on short passwords that you can remember and type easily. The longer the password, the harder it is to crack. A password of 16–20 characters is generally considered safe; never use anything shorter than 13 characters.
  • Even if one of your passwords was compromised, having a different password for every site ensures that the attackers can’t break into any of your other accounts.

But password security hasn’t always been a big deal on the Internet, and many people reused passwords regularly in the past. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if any of your information was included in a data breach, so you’d know which passwords to change?

A free service called Have I Been Pwned does just this (“pwned” is hacker-speak for “owned” or “dominated by”—it rhymes with “owned”). Run by Troy Hunt, Have I Been Pwned gathers the email addresses associated with data breaches and lets you search to see if your address was stolen in any of the archived data breaches. Even better, you can subscribe to have the service notify you if your address shows up in any future breaches.

Needless to say, you’ll want to change your password on any site that has suffered a data breach, and if you reused that password on any other sites, give them new, unique passwords as well. That may seem like a daunting task, and we won’t pretend that it isn’t a fair amount of work, but both 1Password and LastPass offer features to help.

In 1Password, look in the sidebar for Watchtower, which provides several lists, including accounts where the password may have been compromised in a known breach, passwords that are known to have been compromised, passwords that you reused across sites, and weak passwords.

LastPass provide essentially the same information through its Security Challenge and rates your overall security in comparison with other LastPass users. It suggests a series of steps for improving your passwords; the only problem is that you need to restart the Security Challenge if you don’t have time to fix all the passwords at once.

Regardless of which password manager you use, take some time to check for and update compromised, vulnerable, and weak passwords. Start with more important sites, and, as time permits, move on to accounts that don’t contain confidential information.

Best Practices For Secure Passwords

Passwords are the bane of our modern existence. Nearly anything you want to do, it seems, calls for a password. As the Internet’s reach extends beyond computers and into phones, TVs, appliances, and even toys, we have to enter passwords with increasing frequency and in ever more annoying ways. Here are our best practices for Secure Passwords.

To make dealing with passwords easier and more secure, everyone should use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass. Such apps generate random long passwords like kD*SSDcCl7^6FN*F, store those passwords securely, and automatically enter them for you when you need to log in to a Web site. They are essential in today’s world.

You’ll still need a few passwords you can remember and type manually—for instance, the master password for your password manager and your Apple ID password. Make sure those passwords are at least 12 characters, and we recommend going to at least 16 characters.

If you’re unsure of the best way to create a strong password, try taking the first letter of each word in a sentence you can remember, and also change a few words to digits. Then “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party!” becomes a password along the lines of Nitt4agm2c2ta0tp! . So that no eavesdroppers learn your password, avoid saying your sentence out loud whenever you enter it! Or, combine four or five unrelated dictionary words, like correct-horse-battery-staple , that add up to at least 28 characters. (Don’t use the examples in this paragraph!)

When possible, take advantage of two-factor authentication on sites like Apple, Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Accounts protected by two-factor authentication essentially require that you enter a second, time-expiring password as part of the login process. You’ll get that second password via text message, authenticator app, or other notification method when you log in.

But what we really want to talk about today is what you should not do with passwords. Follow these tips to avoid making mistakes that can undermine even the security provided by a password manager.

  1. Don’t use the same password twice. This is key, because if the bad guys get your password—no matter how strong—for one site, they’ll try it on other sites.
  2. Don’t share passwords with anyone you don’t trust completely. That’s especially true of passwords to accounts that contain sensitive information or that can be used to impersonate you, like email and social media. However, sometimes you have to share a password, such as to a club blog with multiple authors. In that case…
  3. Don’t send passwords to shared sites via email or text message. If someone hacks into your recipient’s email or steals their phone, the password could be compromised. Instead, use a site like One-Time Secret to share a link that shows the password only once, after which the recipient should put the password into their password manager.
  4. Don’t write your passwords on sticky notes. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but people still do it. Similarly, don’t put all your passwords in a text file on your computer. That’s what password managers are for—if someone steals your computer, they can’t break into your password manager, whereas they could open that text file easily.
  5. Don’t change passwords regularly if you don’t have to. As long as every site has a strong, unique password, changing a password is a waste of time, especially if doing so makes you write down the password or communicate it insecurely. If you do have to update a password regularly, a password manager makes the task much easier.

We realize that it’s tempting to take the easy road and share a password with a friend via email or write a particularly gnarly one on a sticky note. But today’s easy road leads directly to identity theft and is paved with insecure password habits. You might think no one would pay attention to little old you, but times have changed, and organized crime is interested in any Internet account that can be cracked.

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