"Hey you! Your mail has been hacked, and you're sending spam to all your friends."
You have very likely received an email similar to this one from a friend of colleague at some point. Or you will receive one. Email accounts get hacked very often, but lots of us have no idea what to do when an evil bot takes over and starts spewing spam (maybe even malware) across cyberspace. In most cases, recovering from this sort of attack is not terribly difficult. Here's what you should do as soon as you learn that your email has been hacked -- and right after
First sit down, take a deep breath, and do nothing. That's right. Don't do anything until you're relaxed. The worst computing mistakes I ever made happened when I was worked up about something, or working far too late at night, and not thinking straight.
Next you'll want to changing the password associated with your hijacked email account. Whatever took over your account — it's much more likely to be an automated program than a live person — needs a password to access it. So a prompt password change can quickly cut them off. Make sure that password is a strong one, OK? (For reference, here's a look at some really weak passwords. Don't use any of them.)
If you're a Windows user (Macs get hijacked too, but less frequently) the next step is to download and run the Microsoft Safety Scanner, to make sure your machine wasn't somehow infected with malware. It's free and as Microsoft explains, the tool "provides on-demand scanning and helps remove viruses, spyware, and other malicious software." It also works with your existing antivirus software.
After you download Microsoft Safety Scanner, it asks if you want it to perform a quick scan or a full scan; if you have time, opt for the full scan. The tool expires in ten days, but if you need it in the future, and hopefully won't, you can simply download it again. Remember, the Microsoft Scanner is not an antivirus program and will not stop threats from attacking your computer — which brings us to the next step in the process.
Check your antivirus program to see when it was last updated. (You do use an antivirus app, right? If you're a Windows user, you should.) Those updates are critical because they arm the program with the latest information on current threats. Some threats can simply bypass your antivirus protection if your defenses aren't current. After you ensure you're up to date, run an antivirus scan.
If you use Windows 7 or Windows 8 you already have a decent antivirus program called Windows Defender. The service is usually turned on by default, but you may have to activate it yourself.
Many other free and premium antivirus and anti-malware programs are also readily available. PCMagazine.com recently published a 2015 antivirus roundup that is worth a look. If your system is still acting strangely after all of this, and you think it is infected, visit Microsoft's Malware Protection Center for advanced troubleshooting procedures.
After the fire is extinguished, be responsible and contact the people in your address book who were spammed. You can check your sent mail box for details. If you have hundreds of contacts, that's probably not practical, but you might want to send a group email to the people you contact frequently.
The next time you get a spam message from a friend, or a colleague sends you one of those "Sorry, I’ve been hacked!" messages, think about passing along a link to this post.