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Emails hacked by cybercriminals represent a gold mine of personal data and potentially access to all your other accounts. Considering the number of online accounts linked to email – including online banking and online shopping – recovery from an email hack is highly time-sensitive. You'll have to act fast and carefully to minimize the damage to your identity, finances, and those around you. Read on to find out how email hacks happen and what to do if you’re the victim of an email hack.

How does an email account get hacked?

The main reasons why someone may fall victim to email hacking include:

Phishing scams:

This might involve an email that appears to be from a genuine brand, asking you to confirm your password, account details, contact or other information. Criminals use social engineering techniques to trick victims into handing over their email passwords. Often, they can be very convincing.

Data breaches:

Hackers may have obtained your email credentials through a data breach. If you use the same password for multiple accounts, then one compromised account means a hacker can access all of them. Sometimes, hackers buy passwords from the dark web, where cybercriminals sell them after successful data breaches.

Not logging out after using a public PC or device:

If you use a public PC to check your email, but don't log out afterward, then a user after you can obtain your password and use it to hack your account. Always log out properly after using a public PC or device. In addition, be mindful that public PCs could be infected with malware or spyware – so tread carefully.

Using a public Wi-Fi network that is not secured:

Free public Wi-Fi connections, like the ones in coffee shops or airports, often have little or no security. This makes it easy for hackers to spy on traffic flowing through it – including your email details. One way to avoid this is by sticking to networks you trust or that are password-protected. Using a VPN – a virtual private network – also helps since it secures and encrypts your connection.

Weak or easy-to-guess passwords:

If you use a weak or obvious password, hackers could guess what it is. A strong password is at least 12 characters – ideally longer – and is made up of upper- and lower-case letters, characters, and numbers. Using a password manager can help you keep track of multiple passwords.

Not using up-to-date antivirus software:

Using a good quality antivirus and keeping it up-to-date is the best way to protect your devices from malware designed to steal your passwords. Malware can infect your machine through compromised attachments or downloads.

How can I tell if someone has hacked into my email account?

If you’re wondering if your email has been hacked, warning signs include:

Your password no longer works

One of the clearest indications of being hacked is that you can no longer sign into your email. If you type in your usual email password and it doesn’t work, then it’s likely that someone else has changed it. Once hackers have gained access to your email, they often change the password to prevent you from logging in.

There are emails in your account that you don’t recognize

However, hackers don't always change your password, and sometimes you will still be able to access your email account. You may notice that there are messages in your sent folder that you do not recognize because you didn't send them. Or perhaps there are password reset emails in your inbox from websites that you didn't request – as hackers may be using access to your email to attempt to change your password on other sites. Messages that you don’t recognize are a sign that a hacker could have access to your account.

Friends say they have received odd or spam messages from you

If your contacts report receiving spam from your email address, it's a red flag that your email has potentially been hacked and that your data is at risk.

Different IP addresses display in your log

Some email providers have a tool that reveals your IP address – meaning each time you log into your email account, your IP address is recorded. For example, in Gmail, if you scroll to the bottom of the page, in the right-hand corner, you will see the word 'Details'. If you click on this, you can see the IP address locations from which your account has been accessed. If you only access the account from home or work, the IP address will show these addresses. If someone else has been accessing your email account, different IP addresses will show.

What can hackers do with your email address?

If you think your email has been hacked, it’s natural to assume the worst, such as ‘can someone hack my bank account with my email address?’

Your email account is a treasure trove of valuable information, which is why hackers want to get hold of it. Anyone who hacks your email gains access to your contact list, which they can use for phishing attempts to carry out further fraud. In addition, from the content of your emails, they will have a good idea of which websites you have accounts with, including financial and banking sites. They can use your email to reset other account passwords, gain access to credit information, or even delete accounts. They can use the information they uncover to steal money or obtain personal data, which they can sell on the dark web.

Ultimately, our email addresses are often the primary identifier in many login processes. If a hacker wants to gain entry to your online accounts, then knowing your email address is an excellent first step.

Email hacked.

What to do if your email is hacked

So, what to do if a scammer has your email address and has hacked your account? Here are the steps you can take to protect yourself:

1. Run your antivirus program

As noted in the FTC's guide to hacked email, the first action to take if your account is hacked is to run a comprehensive antivirus scan. Skip the "quick scan" setting in favor of a deep scan to identify and eliminate all forms of malware (including Trojans, spyware, and keyloggers that could be tracking your keystrokes even after the hack has been identified) and potentially unwanted applications.

Hackers don't want access to your account so they can send your friends embarrassing messages — they're looking for ways to scam you out of money or commit credit card fraud. For example, hackers target businesses that regularly send funds via wire transfer. Once an email account is compromised, they can send their own unauthorized transfers. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Center, business email compromise (BEC) caused financial losses of $2.4 billion in 2021, up from $1.8 billion in 2020.

The sooner you run an antivirus scan, the better. It's essential to ensure your system is clean before changing any of your other sensitive information to avoid restarting the cycle.

2. Change your passwords

Once your computer is free of malware, it's time to change your password. If you've lost access to your account, you may need to contact the email provider directly to prove who you are and ask for a password reset.

Choose a new password that is different from your old one, and make sure it doesn't contain strings of repeated characters or numbers. Stay away from passwords that have obvious ties to your name, birthday, or similar personal details. Hackers can easily find this information and often use it in their first brute force attempts to access your account.

Your password should be unique for each account, complex (that is, a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters), and at least 12 characters long (ideally more). If you need help creating new passwords or managing all your new complex ones, use a secure password manager to store them safely.

How to change email password:

This will vary by provider. For example:

Gmail

  • Go to myaccount.google.com
  • Under Sign-in & security, choose ‘Signing into Google’
  • Under Password & sign-in method, click on Password
  • Log into your Google account
  • Enter a new password, then re-enter it and click Change password

Hotmail & Outlook

  • Log into your Hotmail account at outlook.com
  • Click on your name at the top right of the screen
  • Choose View Profile
  • Click Change password next to your email address
  • Microsoft will verify it is you requesting to change your password: enter your email address and click Send code
  • Check your inbox for a code, then enter it in the browser and click Submit
  • Now enter your current password and new password (at least eight characters and case-sensitive), then re-enter the password
  • Click Save

Yahoo Mail

  • Log into your Yahoo Mail account at login.yahoo.com
  • Click on your name at the top right of the screen
  • Choose Account info
  • Select the Account security tab
  • Click on Change password
  • Enter a new password, re-enter it to confirm, then click Continue

3. Contact other online services

Changing your passwords with other online accounts is critical as well. Payment-based accounts such as Amazon, Netflix, credit card companies, and even the local library need a reset. Be sure to update each of your passwords to prevent hackers from compromising these accounts as well.

Keeping your other accounts secure is important since secondary services are ultimately the much more valuable targets in these security breaches. For example, your bank account could easily be the next break-in if the scammer found the information needed to reset your password.

Again, be sure to use a unique password for every site. The risk for follow-up breaches increases if you use the same password for multiple sites. Avoid streamlined logins via your email or social media accounts to reduce risk. However, even varied passwords may not be enough if you have emails in your account that lead directly to linked online vendors.

4. Notify people you know

Keep in mind the need to protect your contact list as well. It’s a good idea to tell your friends, family, and colleagues that you've been hacked.

During the period when attackers had control of your account, they could have sent dozens or even hundreds of malware-laden emails to everyone you know. This type of phishing attack in turn gives them access to a new set of victims.

You should notify your contact lists on other platforms as well. Email may be just one route the attackers take to bait your contacts. If they breached your social media or messaging apps, fraudulent messages could be sent from each of these. Warning your contacts lets them take steps to ensure their own devices are clean and unaffected.

5. Change your security questions

While your password was the most likely attack route, it's also possible that hackers broke into your account after answering your security questions.

By using false answers to security questions, you can subvert a hacker's chances of breaking in again. Make sure they are memorable to you but not discoverable through your social media posts or other public info. According to Google research, many users choose the same answer to common security questions. For example, nearly 20% of American users answered "pizza" to the question "What is your favorite food?"

Enabling multi-factor authentication enables you to protect your logins and password resets. This authentication uses secondary email addresses or text messages to secure your email further.

6. Report the hack

If you haven't already, contact your email provider and report the hack. This is important even if your hacked email didn't cause you to lose access. Reporting a hack helps providers track scam-based behavior. When you report a hack, you’re protecting yourself and others from future threats by helping the provider improve their security.

In addition, your email provider may be able to offer details about the origin or nature of the attack. You might find that the breach is larger and affects other services you may have.

7. Create a new email account

Sometimes it's easier to start again. Take a moment to reflect: has this email been hacked before? Is your provider not taking steps to mitigate the amount of spam you receive? It may be time for a switch.

Look for a service that offers default encryption of your emails. Data encryption helps your private emails stay concealed if the provider’s servers are breached. Hackers cannot unlock this data without the proper security key.

How to change email address:

Changing email addresses isn’t always straightforward. Most email services don't allow you to change your email address, which means you usually need to create a new account and then migrate your information over. You can make the process easier by setting up proper forwarding and informing people of the change. Some services allow you to migrate emails from your old account. After creating a new account, you may want to keep your old one active for a while. You can use it for some time to ensure that you don’t miss any important messages and don't get locked out of any of your online accounts.

8. Contact credit agencies

Hackers' reach is often much more significant than a simple email hack indicates. It's a good idea to reach out and ask credit reporting agencies to monitor your accounts in the months after you've been hacked.

If you’ve been contacted or responded to any suspicious named emails recently, take note of this as well. Fraudsters are much more likely to attempt to make personal contact and convince you to share personal details before they start defrauding your accounts and making purchases on your credit card. Scammers know that a personal touch often gets them through the first line of spam defense.

9. Consider your ID protection options

If you've been hacked, it is worth considering an ID protection service. These services typically offer real-time email and online retail account monitoring. In addition, they also usually offer credit score reporting and personal assistance in the event of identity theft.

Look for companies with a solid track record since there's often a significant cost associated with this kind of protection. Make sure you use a legitimate service — not a hacker scam in disguise looking for your personal data.

Additionally, consider using cyber security software with account monitoring services. Expanded internet security suites tend to monitor your online accounts for data breaches. They will usually provide you with full support and guidance in case of a leak or hack.

10. Get totally secure

Run an antivirus scan on all connected devices, including your laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Take steps to secure the cloud since it may also contain your personal data. Change your passwords, notify your providers, and consider cleaning your cloud data and backups with an antivirus scan. These measures can give you further peace of mind.

Upgrade your basic antivirus protection to full-time internet security protection if you haven't already. Look for a service that proactively blocks new, unknown threats and safeguards your actions online.

Once you know how to fix hacked email, defending yourself gets a lot easier. If you ever discover that your email has been hacked, follow these steps to take back control and prevent future problems.

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My email has been hacked - what should I do next?

If your email has been hacked, you need to act fast. Learn how emails can be hacked, how to tell if someone has hacked your email account & what to do if your email is hacked.
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