We’ve all been in the dreaded situation where your phone reads "low battery" and there’s no outlet or charger in sight. In times like these, public USB charging ports commonly found in malls, airports, or even on streets in large cities can feel like a godsend. But can public chargers hack into your phone and pose a major security threat?

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It’s common knowledge that emails, webcams, and credit cards get hacked, but the latest study in cyber security looks at these USB charging stations specifically. On Feb. 19, 2020 Dr. Oz spoke with Hearst chief national consumer correspondent Jeff Rossen and Jim Stickley, a cyber security specialist hired by companies to hack into systems to test security, to identify the severity of this threat and what the average person can do to protect themselves. Here’s what they had to say:

Should You Be Worried About Charging Stations?

Most public charging stations are not inherently bad, says Stickley. There has been concern with charging stations that provide their own USB cables for your use, rather than just being an outlet for you to plug your cord into. These provided cables can have malware embedded in them which can steal your private information. Basically, if a hacker hits the station, he or she plug in their phone to the attached cord and encrypt it with malware that can then hack the next person’s phone.

Rossen says it doesn’t take long for the malware to get onto your phone: “The second you plug in your phone, you’ve given all of your private info up in a flash,” he says. He also notes that malls are the more likely culprit over airports because there's less security at a mall, making it easier for a hacker to install malware in these spaces.

How Do I Know If I’ve Been Hacked?

Rossen says a sure fire way to know the cord you used has malware on it is if a pop-up appears on your phone that says, “Trust This Computer” as soon as you plug it in. You may have noticed this message appear on your phone when you plug it into your computer, but it should never appear when you’re just plugging it into a charging station. If you click "Trust," your phone will be hacked.

Stickley acknowledges that while charging stations could be hacked, it’s pretty unlikely because it’s an inconvenient way for hackers to get information. “Your entire base is how many people are gonna walk up and charge; that’s a pretty small number. [The mall charging stations I’ve checked out] get 20-30 people in a day, and that’s just nothing [for a hacker],” he says. However, if you are concerned, both experts recommend using your own charging cable whenever possible.

You could also bring the adaptor that plugs into the wall, which eliminates the issue of needing to use a charging station entirely.

Additionally, if you’re worried about a charging station in your hotel room, you shouldn’t be. “[The hacker would] have to go back [into the hotel room] and collect the data. It’s a lot of work for a very small amount of return for the investment. While it could happen, I see it being very unlikely,” says Stickley.

The Piece of Technology You Should Be Worried About the Most

Both experts emphasize the importance of keeping your laptop cameras covered.

Hackers can get into your laptop camera and see what you’re doing. “Cyber extortion has gotten really, really popular, because it’s so easy. Hacking cameras on laptops is child’s play, anyone can do it,” says Stickley. “And if you happen to catch people in a compromising position, you got them. People will pay to make sure an image or video doesn’t get released.” Stickley advises to cover your camera with a piece of paper or tape to prevent a hacker from seeing anything, even if they do gain access.

You should also be alert when it comes to using your computer in general. False emails and internet pop-ups can be some of the biggest traps. Stickley says personal computers (PC) are inherently vulnerable. “If you’re clicking links or opening attachments [when you don’t know the sender] on a PC, you’re [most likely] getting hacked. That link will take you to a site that will put malware on the computer — without you even realizing.” Your computer should have some sort of security or antivirus software on it. If it doesn’t, you should consider investing in one to protect your information. Stickley says if your PC has been compromised it’s best to reset it. Look up how to reset your specific computer model online or take it to an electronics store for help.

Other important actions to take after you know you’ve been hacked are to change your passwords, freeze any affected accounts (like credit cards), and let your friends and family know you’ve been hacked so they won’t open suspicious emails or messages claiming to be from you.

In an age when hacking is almost as easy as getting hacked, it’s important to recognize the potentially hazardous avenues that hackers and easily get into. If something seems off to you — like odd notifications on your phone or emails from strangers asking for money — it probably is, so use caution when clicking to protect yourself and your private information.


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