The theft of certain data can not only lead to huge immediate profits for the offender but can also be the basis for extorting the victim and demanding a ransom or for subsequently defrauding them by making use of the available information.
The latest of these data theft attacks was recently suffered by WhatsApp. According to the information available on the case, the platform was hacked and the data of more than 500 million users in more than 80 different countries was compromised.
It is not known how the criminals hacked the platform and obtained the data, but what we do know is that the data have been offered for sale on websites on the dark net (cyber black market). In the hands of people without scruples, these data could ultimately be used to commit various types of crime, such as fraud or identity theft.
Not so long ago, the WhatsApp platform was a veritable goldmine for hackers, as the system was unencrypted and messages travelled freely over the internet. This meant that anyone using the right applications could access user data and conversations.
Nowadays, this has changed and different security measures have been incorporated (two-step verification, point-to-point encryption of conversations, etc.). Thanks to this, hacking WhatsApp has become more complex. However, as Adidas would say, “impossible is nothing,” so we cannot rule out the possibility of future cyber-attacks.
All the more so when cybercriminals are constantly honing their hacking techniques and offer them openly on certain websites. If you go to a search engine like Google and ask how to hack WhatsApp or how to spy on a particular account, you will see numerous results of applications, both free and paid, that allow you to get access to other devices without permission.
How can I tell whether my data has been compromised and my number is among those that have been hacked?
While it is not easy to know for sure, there are some indicators that can suggest that you are among the unlucky ones:
- If you see messages in one-to-one or group chats that you have not sent, you should become suspicious. If you see something that does not click or pictures that do not ring a bell, take action and take precautions; even more so, if you find that there are outgoing messages from your account insulting your contacts, sending advertisements or trying to get certain information from other people.
- If changes are made to your profile picture, caption or name and you have not done so yourself, it is very likely that someone is trying to steal your account or that they have succeeded in doing so.
- If your phone is running slower than usual, you find apps you have not installed, the battery runs out sooner, the phone uses more data than usual or has an otherwise abnormal behaviour, it could be that someone has activated spyware or is spying on you in some other way.
If any of this is happening, what should I do?
The key steps would be to block the SIM card, request the deactivation of your WhatsApp account, reinstall it on another device with the same number, all the while not logging out.
Do not forget that this type of incident should be reported. If it is not reported, the offence does not come to the attention of the authorities (police and courts), which means that the cybercriminal finds their actions to have no consequences and ultimately commits them again.
Consider that Spanish national law enforcement and security have specialised units to combat cybercrime and are equipped with specialists and cutting-edge technology to do so. Likewise, judges in Spain are becoming more and more accustomed to prosecuting these crimes, so reporting them is useful.
Several different types of crime, depending on the action of the cybercriminal
- If the offender breaks into a computer system, this would be the criminal offence of hacking (Article 197bis of the Spanish Criminal Code). Pursuant to this article, anyone who breaches the security measures of a computer system without authorisation and accesses (or facilitates access to) it or who remains in it against the legitimate owner’s will, may be punished with a prison sentence of six months to two years.
- If there is “spying” on the conversations of a WhatsApp account, we would be dealing with the criminal offence of discovery and disclosure of secrets (Article 197 of the Criminal Code). Article 197 establishes prison sentences of one to four years and a fine of twelve to twenty-four months but requires that a secret is actually revealed (i.e., that the offender is successful) and that there is malice on the part of the offender.
- If what occurs is a financial loss for the victim, following a deception (by means of a message, a link, etc.), this is the criminal offence of “computer fraud” (Article 248 of the Criminal Code). This offence carries a prison sentence of six months to three years, and a number of conditions must be present, such as deception (previous or concurrent, sufficient and proportional), misleading of the victim, an act of financial disposal and economic detriment to the victim, the offender’s profit motive as well as a causal link between the deception caused and the economic damage suffered.
What can I do to prevent my mobile phone and messages from being hacked?
Notwithstanding the above, it is always better to act preventively rather than reactively. We rarely take the necessary measures to make it more difficult for criminals to do their “thing”. To this end, it is very important to improve the privacy and security of both the mobile phone and the WhatsApp account itself (in addition to the fact that it would be desirable for Meta’s own IT engineers to protect WhatsApp even more).
Whether or not you take actions such as activating two-step verification, installing an antivirus, setting strong passwords and even using drawing patterns, fingerprint or facial recognition to enter the app can be the decisive factor in whether you become a victim of such an attack.
Moreover, there are alternatives to WhatsApp. Although these apps are not free of charge, they offer greater security for communication and are much more difficult to hack. One example is Threema. This Swiss application does not allow registration with a phone number or a name, but during registration each user is assigned a random and completely anonymous ID. This ID is the only data the company stores on its servers, and it does not sell user data to other entities for advertising purposes. It also has end-to-end message encryption and does not store chat messages on the server.
Our cybersecurity is important. Measures must be taken to ensure the integrity of our data insofar as possible and avoid that these data end up in the wrong hands.