Computer hacking can be a serious crime, leading to the theft of identifying information or the shutdown of online services. Even those who are not the direct victims of hackers can be affected by computer hacking. These effects manifest in a number of ways, though in some cases, not all of the effects are negative.
Identity theft is the theft of identifying or financial information, such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or other private information. Identity information stolen by hackers can be used to make unauthorized charges on existing credit cards, apply for new credit cards or other accounts using an individual's identity or to generate fake IDs using the victim's identity. Identity theft can take months or longer to recover from, assuming that the victim is aware that his or her identity or other personal information has been stolen in the first place.
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Denial of Services
The hacking of corporate or governmental websites can lead to the shutdown of the site until the damage to the site has been assessed and any security holes in the site are corrected. In some cases, this may lead to weeks of downtime while the site is restored. Even if the hackers don't penetrate the site's security, they can still shut it down through a "denial of service" attack, which is performed by generating false traffic for the site which exceeds its capacity to handle requests.
Computer hacking can be used as a tool to commit fraud. Spoof versions of popular websites can be created that look and operate like the original, with hacked websites redirecting visitors to the spoofs when they think they are visiting the original. The hackers who created the spoofed site can gain access to user names and passwords or financial information from visitors, and in some cases, may even receive orders for products which will never be shipped.
Viruses and Other Threats
Hackers may be responsible for placing viruses, malware and other unauthorized software on computers. Often these programs are disguised as useful or desired programs, installing the hazardous portion of the software at the same time as the useful program. This software can record keystrokes and report them back to the hacker to aid in stealing passwords or financial information. Other malware may present false virus warnings to convince computer users to purchase fake antivirus protection or can allow a hacker to remotely take control of the user's computer for use in a denial of service attack against a website.
Not all hackers are malicious, however. "Ethical hackers" and "white hat hackers" assist companies and government agencies in improving their online security, searching for security holes that could allow unauthorized access to servers or computers and reporting the details of the holes so they may be repaired. These hackers help to improve overall online security and assist in reducing instances of identity theft or other hacking-related crimes.