Google Report Reveals 4 Simple Steps Hackers Take to Ruin Your Digital Life

Google report reveals how hackers target, take over and monetize your accounts.

November 7, 2014, 12:10 PM
PHOTO: How long does it take to simply guess someone's password?
How long does it take to simply guess someone's password?
Getty Images

— -- Hackers can get surprisingly close to compromising an individual's account in a matter of a few quick steps, according to a new Google report that reveals the secret playbook used by hackers.

While the attacks are rare, with just nine per one million users reported per day, according to Google, they can be incredibly damaging.

The stealth tactics used by manual hijackers to individually target an account -- as opposed to those who use an automated bot -- can leave personal information and contacts vulnerable and even expose everything inside a victim's bank account, according to the report, which draws from lessons learned from 2011 to 2014.

Google offered a comprehensive look at the inner workings of these hackers -- from a play-by-play of the steps they take to their schedules and the lessons that can be learned.


Many victims are lured into a manual hijacker's trap by falling prey to a phishing email.

"It requires less infrastructure than operating a botnet and allows attackers to target specific victims, especially an existing victim’s contacts," the report said.

In many cases, users were sent an email that directed them to a login page that looked legitimate and prompted them to enter their login information. Many of the spoof pages were for well known sites, and left user's email accounts and in some cases, their financial information, vulnerable.

Assess the Value

Of the test email addresses Google used, 20 percent of the accounts were broken into within 30 minutes of hackers getting the login information. Half were broken into within seven hours from the moment the account owners took the phishing bait.

From there, hackers took an average of three minutes to assess the value of the accounts, such as looking for banking details or messages flagged as important, before deciding whether it was worth proceeding.

PHOTO: A Google study reveals how hackers operate once they're inside an account.
A Google study reveals how hackers operate once they're inside an account.


Hackers may have a target's banking information after infiltrating their account -- or they can try to target their contacts for money.

If they decided to proceed, hackers spent an average of 15 minutes looking through a compromised account's emails and figuring out ways to personalize their scams. The most common way was to send a scam email to contacts, detailing a harrowing story such as a mugging while on a vacation abroad.

The emails typically ask for a quick loan to help extricate themselves from the tragic situation. Another commonality: They usually include details such as the user claiming their phone was stolen so the friend receiving the email will not think twice about contacting them to verify the note is legitimate.

Even more frightening, contacts of a compromised account are 36 times more likely to be manually hijacked too, according to Google.

Delay Account Recovery

Holding off the rightful account owner is key to a hacker's success. According to Google, manual hijackers will take steps to lock users out of their accounts for a while so they have time to exploit and monetize the hack.

One way hackers can keep account owners at bay is by changing the password. Sometimes they delve deeper, changing the account recovery options, thus creating a more time consuming process for someone who is locked out to once again gain access to their accounts.

Some hackers will skip this process, allowing the rightful owner to access their account as usual while the hacker quietly works in the shadows. One way hackers do this and avoid detection is by setting up filters that funnel all of their fraudulent communications to a spam or trash folder, or another place where the account owner might not typically look.

Lessons Learned

From five hackers Google followed, they determined that the group treated hacking almost like a typical desk job. The individuals worked a predictable daily schedule, and even took a synchronized one hour lunch break.

The report said it's important to act fast after a phishing attempt is discovered. Aside from carefully monitoring the sites where a user shares their credentials, Google recommends two-step authentication.

This requires account owners to verify from a second source, such as their phone, when someone is trying to access their account from another location. Google also recommends having an iron clad account recovery system, such as a phone number and separate email address.

"Developing novel ways to validate user identity both for login challenge and account recovery purpose is something that we view as critical and we would love to see more research done in this space," the report said, noting the flexibility and intelligence of the hackers, whose tactics continue to evolve.