What Is Hacking?

Quick Answer

Hacking occurs when someone gains unauthorized access to a device such as a laptop, phone, tablet or computer network.

person typing on computer overlaid with a security lock hologram

Hacking occurs when someone gains unauthorized access to a device such as a laptop, phone, tablet or computer network. Once inside, hackers may collect information, commit fraudulent activities or both.

As our lives become more digital, it's increasingly important that we protect ourselves from hackers and data breaches. Here's what you should know about hacking and how good personal data practices can help you protect yourself from these attacks.

How Does Hacking Occur?

There are many ways hackers can gain unauthorized access to your devices and personal information. Sadly, those ways are increasing as hackers become more savvy and sophisticated with their methods.

Hackers don't only attack massive enterprise networks. They also look to compromise things like mobile devices, wearables and other internet-enabled devices such as a smart thermostat or webcam. For this reason, it's a good idea to understand the best safety practices for all your devices and every place your information is stored.

Here are some common ways that hackers operate:

  • Keylogging malware: This software allows hackers to collect your keystrokes, which could include credentials like account information and Social Security numbers.
  • Phishing: This is the practice of sending fraudulent emails in an attempt to collect sensitive information. Other methods involve using voicemail, phone calls and text messages to achieve the same effect.
  • Sniffing: Hackers may be able to scan and access data in real time, especially if it's being transmitted over unsecured wireless networks. For this reason, you should always use caution when connecting to an unfamiliar Wi-Fi network. Using a virtual private network (VPN) can help you keep your data safe.
  • Card skimming: Some hackers use a card skimming device placed over a card reader on an ATM or a fuel pump to scrape credit card information.
  • Unsecure browsing: Web users may inadvertently put sensitive information on an unsecure website where hackers can access it.
  • Botnet attacks: Hackers can install malware on a user's device then control them remotely to attack other networks.

What Is Ethical Hacking?

Not all hackers have malicious intentions. So-called "white hat" hackers work to expose potential vulnerabilities in computer networks, software and hardware—usually by hacking. These ethical hackers look for ways that unethical hackers, or "black hat" hackers, might exploit those vulnerabilities.

White hat hackers typically work to identify ways black hat hackers could infiltrate cyber attacks, install malware or attempt data breaches. Once a white hat hacker finds a weakness, however, they'll work with companies to correct issues in order to prevent future attacks. They often do so in search of a bounty or reward from an organization interested in shoring up its security.

How to Protect Yourself From Hackers

Sadly, the proliferation of hacking methods means you need to stay on guard when it comes to protecting your identity and related personal data. Here are some tips you can use to keep your information safe online:

  • Install anti-malware software on your computer.
  • Make sure your mobile devices and apps have the latest updates, which aim to fix security issues.
  • Don't click on unknown links in your email or text messages.
  • Create unique, secure passwords and an encrypted password manager, which can create strong passwords and prompt you to change them often.
  • If you must access unsecured, public Wi-Fi networks, consider using a VPN service to protect your data.
  • Respond to notifications of data breaches that might have exposed your personal information by changing passwords and card numbers as appropriate.
  • Avoid visiting unsecured websites.

You should also know that hackers regularly attack large corporate networks to steal information. These data breaches are not only common but have been happening more frequently. When your information is stolen, identity thieves and hacking groups make money selling the information they steal on the dark web.

The good news is that these tips can help you get ahead of the game by securing your information against hackers.

The Bottom Line

Hackers are always inventing new ways to access and steal private information. Some do it for fun or in search of rewards and others do it to commit identity theft. No matter their motivation, you still need to make every effort to protect yourself. One thing you can do is sign up for free credit monitoring or identity theft protection from Experian. An Experian membership can help you stay updated on any changes to your credit profile as soon as it happens, making it easier for you to act quickly, prevent further damage and start the recovery process as soon as possible.