It was a dark night of the soul, at least in terms of social media.
Over the holidays, my Twitter account was taken over by Russian hackers. It was a good lesson in reputation management--and maybe in stress management.
I know how they did it. Even though I had taken the necessary precautions (I won't go into detail on that), the hackers used a random password generator of some kind. I've covered the tools hackers use before in my job, and I know you can buy a "hacking laptop" that runs Linux and comes pre-loaded with all of the apps you need, including password generators. I've also maintained for a while that there is an elite upper-echelon of hackers in the world--some of them probably have day jobs in IT security--but the rest are just following orders. I suspect my hackers were entry-level. They are probably not going to crack any NSA codes anytime soon.
So what did they do? After commandeering my feed, they started posting randomly generated messages--in Russian. I suspect this is an initial tactic they use. Eventually they started posting links to spyware sites and whatever other tricks they use. Usually, the goal is to get you to click a link and steal your money.
They also changed all of the settings in my Twitter account to Russian. Oddly, they kept my picture the same and didn't change my profile text.
At first, a few of my followers started sending me messages wondering what was going on. One thought I was playing a trick on everyone by posting in Russian. Another was a little concerned for me and offered to help. Several told me my account had been hacked (by posting on Twitter), and a few thought that it was all kind of funny.
And My Next Move Is...?
I didn't think it was funny. For starters, I rely on Twitter every single day. My job depends on it. I use my feed to communicate with friends, colleagues, and business contacts. I post links to articles. I follow other journalists and PR pros. It's where I hunt down new ideas, and where I look for links to new business gadgets. I look for sources and ask questions by direct message. In many ways, it's my first point of contact.
There's a helpless feeling when you realize you've been hacked. It's a bit of an identity crisis. Someone was impersonating me. After a few days, I lost about 300 followers--most of them were probably quite confused about the Russian posts. I started imagining all sorts of terrible scenarios: a damaged reputation, the long hours it would require to build up a new account again, the time to repair the damage to my social media standing.
In some ways, a personal hack like this is similar to what happens in real life when you are attacked in person. You feel a loss of control. You feel a sense of regret--why did I spend so much time posting? You feel anger that someone would single you out. There's no comparison, of course, but some of the initial thought processes are the same.
Curiously, it took me about two days to rebound. I didn't pounce into action right away, probably because I was busy with my family, but also because I firmly decided not to let it ruin the holidays. Then, I decided to fight back.
I started by posting to my own account anyway. Even though I couldn't access my Twitter feed directly, I still had access through Sprout Social. (That's because, once you link a social media account, you can still post and send direct messages--at least until that link is severed.) I explained that my account had been hacked. I posted a few jokes.
Then, I contacted Twitter support. It's fair to say Twitter is a tech monolith that still acts like a startup. The company still uses Zendesk for support, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but Twitter seems to rely almost entirely on cookie-cutter responses at least initially. I had to pester them repeatedly until an actual human being responded. Even then, there was a 24-hour delay between me explaining what happened (and proving that my account had suddenly switched over to Russian) and the support person giving me another small piece of advice.
Thankfully, after only about three days, the Twitter support team finally handed control back to me. The fallout was not as severe as I had imagined. I'm sure those 300 followers will find their way back eventually. The biggest lesson for me was to take my social media a little more seriously. I have added two-factor authentication to almost every account I use now. To hack my account again, someone will need access to my phone and my email.
It also made me realize that Twitter is like the lifeblood of the Internet. Not having full access to my account was like not having gas for my car. Since the hack, I've actually been posting even more. Thankfully, none of my posts have been in Russian.