Email Hacking: Laws, Penalties and Protection

As technology continues to advance at rapid speed, cyber security is a key area of focus. Cyber attacks happen all the time, to both individuals and businesses, and the effects of these attacks can range from annoying to highly destructive. This article explores email attacks, how email can get hacked, and what to do to prevent attacks and protect your email security. 

Email Hacking Defined

Email Hacking is defined as a form of hacking where one’s email is accessed by an unauthorized party. Activities of a hacking attack include a hacker logging in as the user, accessing the user’s address book, and in some cases disseminating a cyber attack to the contacts in the victim’s address book. The victim’s contacts are likely to receive a link or attachment from the victim, and if they click it or download it, it can compromise their computer by infecting it with malware. Any unauthorized access to an email account and activities carried out through the email account by an unauthorized party is considered email hacking.

Email Hacking Laws

A number of State and Federal laws exist that apply to email hacking. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is often used to charge alleged hackers. This law covers a range of technology and computer-related offenses, and it can be applied to email hacking, particularly emails relating to interstate commerce and the U.S. government email accounts. This act prohibits unauthorized access, use or distribution of any information that may relate to national security, unauthorized access to financial information belonging to banks and other financial institutions, and any other email hacking that is intended to defraud anyone. 
Another Federal law that can apply to email hacking is the CAN-SPAM Act. This law can be used to charge parties responsible for unauthorized access to computers to distribute significant amounts of commercial information by email.
State laws exist in every US state to provide legal consequences to email hackers, but their details vary from state to state. The Federal and State laws make one thing abundantly clear – email hacking is a serious crime that carries significant penalties that can apply to its offenders.

How Does Email Hacking Occur?

There are many ways that emails can be hacked, and new hacking methods emerge frequently as technology advances. The most common email hacking methods include:
  • One’s email is hacked after they are asked to log in to some weblink, app, or click to a page.  When one does this, his or her login and password, cookies, or tokens are captured by the hacker and access is granted. 
Hack: Usually these requests come through email. Use email lookup service to check the email address of an unknown sender prior to taking any action or make it a point to not click on anything in suspicious emails, including those that might look legitimate from a first look!
  • Phishing and mass email campaigns are used for email hacking and carrying out other cyber crimes.
Hack: Check the “From” address field carefully – if you spot misspellings or any inconsistencies, such as a .org extension for a for-profit business, delete the email immediately and block the sender.
  • Robot-generated emails are sent to transmit malware that gets installed on the recipient’s machine and steals personal information in order to commit fraud. 
Hack: Treat links and attachments with the utmost caution. If you are not expecting an attachment or link to be sent to you by a trusted party, ignore the email and do not take any actions requested in it.

How to Discover If You Have Been Hacked

Discovering that your email has been hacked can happen in a few ways: 
  • Your contacts start reporting that they received an email from you that you do not recall sending. Often these emails contain links or attachments to click, with an attention-getting message. By clicking or downloading, recipients usually get their emails hacked into. 
  • You spot a suspicious email you do not recall sending in your sent folder. 
  • Your computer becomes infected with a virus and you notice unusual activity, such as being locked out of your files, unusual pop-up windows urging you to take action or slower processing speeds
  • You receive an email from the hacker notifying you of the hack attack and requesting payment in exchange for your system to be restored

Preventing Hacking Attacks

There are a number of steps that email users can take to protect themselves from becoming victims of email hacking, including:
  1. Utilizing strong, unique passwords for each email account. Cyber security experts recommend choosing passwords that include capital letters, symbols and numbers, and having the password be as long as possible. To help remember more complex passwords, consider utilizing a passphrase – something that makes sense in your mind, and that only you would know. An example of this is “ILove2Travel2KeyWest!!” or “7813455654wasthephone#ofmy1stBFF”. Another option is to use a password keychain tool that remembers all the passwords you use. 
  2. Vetting all emails. Most email users do this already, as the volume of junk email grows at considerable rates. Check the sender’s email carefully – are there any misspellings or strange details? Do you see other recipients listed on the email? If so, do you know them? Ask yourself: were you expecting this email? 
  3. Use common sense. If the email asks you to confirm personal or information, think about why this is not being handled via a mailing from the business or agency that is emailing. Nearly all legitimate businesses have policies to avoid the exchange of sensitive information through email, due to security threats. If the email lists a threat that you must address urgently, ask if email would really be the method you would be identified of such threat.
  4. Invest in Security Service for your Computer. Utilize a firewall and / or a virus scan service for your computer to catch problematic activity before it has the chance to cause damage. 
  5. Use Secure Email. Most email is secure, but carefully check the security precautions your service takes, particularly if it is a free service. 
  6. Use Secure Wi Fi Networks. If you log in to email or other services while on a public, unsecured wi fi network, your login and/or password can be captured by hackers. Use secure, password-protected networks and be extra careful when utilizing public, shared wi-fi network. 
  7. Use Email Lookup Service. Look up the sender’s email using a reputable Email Lookup service to give yourself a warning if the sender seems suspicious. 
While email hacking is certainly on the rise, and can end up causing lots of damage and costing the victim time and money to recover, there are a lot of options for email users to protect themselves. With a little awareness and diligence, people can stay ahead of email hacking, and seek damages if they are hacked through no fault of their own.