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Logged on to public computer? Beware skimming from cyber-crooks

November 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Do you use public computers, maybe to check in on a flight at a hotel or a convention kiosk? Criminals could be watching every move you make and recording every key you type, all to swipe your personal information. Here's what you can do to protect yourself.

When John Wetmore travels for work, public computers are his lifeline for email access. But he wonders when he logs on at a library, hotel or coffee shop, who else could be watching?

"My biggest worry when I'm using a public computer is, Has someone installed spyware on it? If there's spyware on it, then someone can capture the keystrokes and know my account and my password and then I'm probably vulnerable," said Wetmore.

Vulnerable is correct: Experts say anyone using public computers may expose themselves to identity thieves waiting to swipe what you type online. We found there are no laws or regulations requiring public computers be secured against spyware programs. As a result, some public computers may have safeguards, others may not.

"Criminals harvesting personal information off of public computers is an extremely prevalent crime in the United States," said Damon Petraglia, a forensic computer investigator. "Unprotected or unsecured network or publicly accessible computer means that it becomes a breeding ground for criminal activity."

Petraglia trains law-enforcement agencies on computer security and is a member of the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force. He shows us how criminals can easily skim your info from public computers with key logging software.

First he downloads a key-logging program onto a computer. It records every letter, number, punctuation mark and space someone types. If he were a criminal he'd leave the computer open for someone else to use and later come back to see what he recorded.

An unsuspecting person might type in his login name and password. You can't see it on the screen as it's typed, but the key-logger readout report is complete with screen name and password.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of different applications that criminals can use in a public environment to do nothing but record your data," said Petraglia.

To protect yourself at public computers:

  • Minimize the accounts you access
  • Never type a password
  • Never bank online

If you do use a password-protected site, change your email as soon as you get home. Otherwise cyber-crooks might find a way to use it later on.

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