14 July 2010
An old and out of use Hotmail account, which I log into every couple of months just to prevent Hotmail from letting my account expire, was hacked in late May. Whoever or whatever (I suspect it was a machine) hacked into my account didn’t do anything terribly malicious. They simply borrowed my address for a month and sent out loads of spam to everyone on my contact list and many more who were not. Sorry! And thanks to the friend who I inadvertently spammed and gave me the heads up about the problem.
What Went Wrong
I have no way of knowing how my account was compromised, but I suspect a brute force attack. Hotmail doesn’t lock accounts or insert any other barrier after a few (or even many) unsuccessful password entry attempts, so a machine could go on happily guessing at least one password per second for as long as it took to find the right one. Unfortunately, I made that process easier by having a password that was all lowercase and lacked special characters. Worse, even though I change most passwords every three or four months, I hadn’t changed that password since I opened the account. It wasn’t a giveaway password – it was 8 digits long and had a combination of letters and numbers – but I could have and should have done more.
Thankfully, the hackers didn’t change the locks while they were making use of my little piece of online real estate, and I was able to log in and reclaim full possession of the account. I set the new password to be extra robust.
And if anybody from Hotmail stumbles across this post: please consider asking people and machines who get their passwords wrong, say, five times in a row to pass a captcha test. Gmail does it. You should, too.
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