Jan. 24, 2013 at 10:32 AM ET
Could predators be spying on you and your kids through your computer's webcam? Authorities say criminals are now able to hack in and watch your every move -- without you ever knowing it.
We all do it: We use our computer, then we get distracted with something and just walk away. You forget the computer is still on. and the criminals are counting on it. Now they can access your webcam remotely, watching your most intimate moments from the kitchen to the privacy of your own bedroom. The worst part is, you'd never even know.
Computer expert Jim Stickley of TraceSecurity showed us how easy it is. From thousands of miles away he broke into one family's laptop and turned on their webcam to view teen girls in their bedroom and in their dining room as the family ate dinner. "It took about three minutes" to hack into their system, Stickley told us.
Stickley said such families are easy targets for webcam predators -- criminals like Luis Mijangos. Prosecutors say he was spying on more than 200 women through their webcams, even blackmailing some of them. He's now serving six years in prison.
"People who are victims generally have no idea that they are victims," Stickley said.
"And suddenly, someone has naked photos of you? Or something else?" we asked.
"Suddenly you're all over the Internet," Stickley said.
So we set up an experiment using the Siegel family of New Jersey. With dad Robert's permission, we had our expert hack into their computer. How'd he do it? He sent them an innocent-looking e-card with a virus.
"They click the little link in the card and as far as they're concerned, they're going to see little quacking ducks," Stickley explained. "In reality, I've also loaded a Trojan (horse) on their computer during that time."
We told Corinne Siegel and the Siegel daughters, Chloe and Cassidy, that we were doing a general story about online security. They had no idea we were spying on them through their computer webcam. We told the girls to go upstairs. Then we let their mom in on the secret: "We actually recorded your family dinner, no one was in your house except you guys."
"It's really creepy," Corinne said. "It's absolutely creepy....my girls are in their bedroom all the time. I'm frightened for them."
So we took it up a notch, having our expert hack into the webcam in her daughter's upstairs bedroom, where they were waiting with our producer. Imagine if it had been a predator spying on your kids.
"I'm sick over it, actually," Corinne said as we watched. "I really am. It's upsetting to see this."
Then we gave the girls a wakeup call. "It's scary," Chloe said when we explained our experiment.
"Someone could potentially be watching you, and this is where you feel most comfortable," Cassidy agreed.
"I thought I was so safe the whole time, but clearly not," Chloe said.
So how can you protect yourself? Number one: Leave your laptop closed when you're not using it. You can also put a piece of tape across the webcam lens.
Secondly, don't open any emails from people you don't know. That includes clicking on those Facebook postings that say things like "Watch this incredible video!" Unless you trust the person posting, don't do it. Those random links are how the hackers gain access.
The FBI says it's impossible to know how often hackers are spying on innocent victims. But keep in mind: one guy, like Luis Mijangos, often has hundreds of women he's watching at any time.
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