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The Scoop on the Target Hacking Scandal

How did hackers manage to break Target's security system and steal millions of accounts? Tech Talker explains the methods hackers use to attack web sites - plus, 3 tips on how you can protect your information and identity on the internet.

By
Eric Escobar,
February 5, 2014
Episode #111

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I've been getting a ton of emails from Tech Talker readers and listeners regarding the Target credit card hacking that took place in November and December. And Target isn't alone. Quite a few retailers have gotten hacked recently.

In this week's episode, I'm going to dive into how exactly this happens!

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First things first, this is going to be a high level outline on how many of these major hacks take place. Obviously each attack is very customized and carries with is differences and subtleties. If I were to go into deep detail on these attacks, this podcast episode would be the legnth of a book!

Why Was Target a Target?

Let's take a look at Target because it's one of the largest retailers attacked (at least that we know about so far). Hackers needed an entry point into Target's computer system. Now, it's not known exactly how this was accomplished, but some sources point to the fact that Target's webserver was compromised, and then used to gain access to their internal payment system.

Once the hackers gained access to the system, they then used a piece of hacking software purchased on a hacking website. I know it seems crazy but the internet is full of places where hackers can buy software and other nefarious things (such as password lists) that can help them break into a system.

From here, the attackers infected computers that were in charge of Target's payment system. The software was slightly modified in order to evade detection. Even so, Target was reported to be using a Windows XP machine for this software which is definitely not the most secure device in the world.

After it infiltrated the computers, the software captured all of the transaction data that went through Target's payment system. When the hackers chose to, they could simply log in and download the data. I know I've oversimplified it, but in actuality, pulling off this sort of attack is pretty sophisticated and there's still a lot of information not available to the public about it.

What is known though is that Target had a lot of customer data stolen, including names, credit card numbers, and addresses. All of which could potentially be used to commit mass fraud and identity theft. This is why you're seeing lots of credit card providers scrambling to give their users new credit cards (with new numbers), to forestall any large scale identity theft.

Sadly, Target's case is not unique, in fact it's just one in a long list of big companies that have been hacked.

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