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Hacker stuns Dayton family with computer takeover | TribLIVE.com
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Hacker stuns Dayton family with computer takeover

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Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
With tape blacking out her laptop's camera, Tanya Smith sits with her children, Alivia, 2, and Ethan, 13, beside some of the family's electronics that were recently hacked in her Dayton home. Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015.
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Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
Tanya Smith sits in front of her home computer that was recently hacked. The PC is now useless. Because of the amount of viruses a hacker terrorizing the family installed, the machine is inoperable. Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015.
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A photo of the hacker's chat that Tanya Walker-Smith took with her cell phone.
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A photo of the hacker's chat that Tanya Walker-Smith took with her cell phone.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Norma Olszewski, 84, of Plum listens to her husband, Henry, 90, discuss his experience in World War II. The couple has been married for 65 years.

Tanya Smith could not believe her eyes as she watched her computer being operated by a hacker somewhere in cyberspace.

Bright green text scrolled against the black computer screen as the hacker typed away furiously in front of her. She was helpless to stop it — her keyboard and mouse rendered useless by the intruder.

“He was making fun of me, saying, ‘you can’t type on here,’” she said. “Then this person typed, ‘why do you look so surprised?’”

The hacker had not only accessed her computer, but its camera as well — making him able to watch what was going on inside the family’s house in Dayton as he typed away. The hacker hijacked the family’s technology at around 11 p.m. Aug. 21. The ordeal, which Smith said lasted until about 4 a.m. Aug. 22, included a take over of not only the family’s computer but its television, iPods, cell phones and children’s electronic devices.

“Somehow he was able to control everything that was connected to the Wi-Fi,” she said. “You couldn’t do anything. He was totally in control.”

The hacker stole a small amount of money from a bank account as he continued to harass Smith and her family from inside their computer. He typed that Smith’s husband looked bewildered. The hacker told them he could see their 10-year-old daughter in her pajamas … and that she looked pretty.

The girl was not even in the same room as the computer. She was in the living room, watching television. But because the television set has Wi-Fi and a camera of its own, he was able to watch her as well, Smith said.

“He was typing inappropriate things, saying, ‘now you’re making me mad, I’m going to take more money out of your banking account,’” she said.

Smith’s daughter-in-law, Jenna McClafferty, witnessed the incident when it was happening. Because she is good with computers, her in-laws asked her to come to the house and see what was happening for herself. She could not help but be stunned.

“The hacker was saying all kinds of provocative things. It was just crazy,” McClafferty said. “I was in total shock. He knew that my husband and I were there.”

Smith called 911. At first the dispatcher was in disbelief. But state police from the Kittanning station – who are investigating the crime – came to her Main Street home. When they walked in, the hacker typed: “You should have never called the cops.”

The state troopers investigating could not be reached for comment, but Smith said they helped the family find the camera on their computer and cover it up. When they did, the hacker said he could no longer see their “beautiful faces,” but could still hear them.

The family eventually unplugged all of the electronic devices in their home or removed the batteries. Items like iPods, with batteries that cannot be removed, they laid face down in their garage until they lost all power.

It took about five days for Smith’s cable company to replace their modem and give them a new IP address. Her bank is in the process of refunding the stolen money. About $100 was taken before the bank recognized problems and froze the account.

“I don’t know how to make my family feel safe again, when there was someone typing on our computer saying he had been watching us for days,” she said.

Protect yourself online

Computer experts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania say there are measures to thwart hackers like the one who invaded the Smith home.

“It’s really about what you do as a user,” said Bill Balint, chief information officer at IUP.

One of the key things to do is to keep programs and software up to date. Such updates — sometimes called patches — are often released to fix breaches found in the program’s security and stay ahead of hackers.

“Hackers find ways to exploit,” Balint said. “They keep scanning ports and different IP addresses looking for that vulnerable one that hasn’t been patched. Then they can go to town.

“Whether it’s an operating system or a web browser, you have to really pay attention to keep your systems patched.”

Paul Grieggs, IUP’s IT security manager, said he has heard of cases similar to Smith’s. Hackers now can steal Wi-Fi passwords and also use programs remotely to take over computers.

“If they get a foothold in your computer, they can install these programs and basically control your computer,” he said.

Grieggs cautions that hackers can strike anywhere at any time, so it pays to be vigilant.

“If you follow some basic tips, a lot of times what happens is a hacker will move on to an easier target,” he said. “You don’t have to be a cyber security expert in your home. But if you follow some basic practices to stay safe, they’ll move on.”

Julie E. Martin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1315 or jmartin@tribweb.com.

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