HAS A CYBERSTALKER TAKEN OVER YOUR LIFE? HERE'S HOW TO GET IT BACK
PC Magazine|October 2021
Picture this: You enter your house and find a stranger (or an enemy) sitting at your kitchen table chowing down on your leftover potato salad and reading your mail. You order him out, but before long, he’s back.
NEIL J. RUBENKING

You change the locks. You call the police (who can’t seem to do anything). No matter what you try, you can’t get rid of the unwanted invader. Eventually, in desperation, you change your name and move out of state. This may sound like an unlikely tale in the physical world, but in the digital realm, it’s a lot easier for a stalker to occupy and effectively own your online life. I’m not just talking about an over-controlling partner stalking you with software so as to know your location and read your texts, terrible as that is. I’m talking here about a complete takeover, where someone else, known or unknown to you, can read your email, post to your social media feeds, and run any software they want (including malware) on your computer.

THIS IS NOT A HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION

This terrible concept isn’t just something I made up for clicks, sadly. It started with an email from a reader seeking help for a relative who was experiencing exactly this kind of digital stalking. The shadowy nemesis changed passwords on the relative’s phone and computer, altered settings to eliminate operating system security features, and gained full access to his email.

Yes, they reported this invasion to the police, but the police couldn’t do anything. There was no smoking gun, no physical evidence, no video footage of the perp fleeing the crime scene. Even the best detectives may not be trained to investigate cybercrime.

I talked over the problem with colleagues who deal in security at one level or another. What advice can we offer this poor, unfortunate soul? In the end, we concluded there’s just one way to recover, and it’s about as annoying as having to change your name and move out of state.

TAINTED ACCOUNTS, TAINTED DEVICES

Among the less drastic ideas, we kicked around were these: Get a new email address. Run an antivirus scan. Run a bunch of scans with aggressive cleanup apps such as Malwarebytes Free. Reinstall Windows. But we couldn’t guarantee any of these would foil a determined stalker.

It’s likely that the attacker initially gained control of the PC using a remote access trojan (RAT). If this type of malware slips past your antivirus, its owner has unlimited power over your PC. Exempt the RAT from future antivirus scans? Sure! Turn off all security settings in Windows? No problem! In fact, the pilot can reconfigure Windows to permit remote control without requiring any malware. That degree of control can even make the RAT redundant, so it’s no big deal if a subsequent malware scan removes it.

As for reinstalling Windows, this task comes in various levels. To get rid of entrenched malware and restore safe settings, you’d need the most extreme level, meaning you’d have to reconfigure the PC as if it were new. That’s a major pain, and it still might not even do the job: Though not common, malware that can survive a Windows reinstall exists.

Don’t even think about getting a new email address until you’ve verifiably eliminated the remote presence on your computer. Otherwise, the attacker will own your new account the moment you log in.

Even if your PC has been purified, a corrupted mobile device could taint it all over again, especially a jailbroken device. Jailbreaking removes safeguards built into the mobile operating system, opening it to all kinds of vulnerabilities. Some people deliberately jailbreak their phones so they can use certain iffy apps. To those people I say…don’t do that! Jailbreaking an Apple device almost certainly requires physical access, but software-only jailbreak apps (including malicious ones) exist for Android.

Resetting a smartphone to factory settings is a relatively easy task compared with resetting a Windows box. And it’s painless, as you can restore your apps and settings from the cloud. But hold on a moment: Chances are good that your stalker has compromised your cloud profile. Restoring from your tainted cloud profile will just put the stalker back in charge.

In every scenario we gamed, trying to fix the problem one step at a time didn’t play out. Oust the stalker from one device, and he weasels back in from another or from an online account. It’s not an easy task, but you really need to start fresh with clean devices and clean accounts.

IT’S TIME FOR A CLEAN SWEEP

Given that half-measures may not do the job, you need to grit your teeth and prepare to spin up a new computer, a new smartphone, a new phone number, and a new email address. That’s the way to make a sure escape from this kind of domineering stalker. Yes, it’s extreme, but the victim in our real-world example was happy to follow this advice.

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