What Is Shoulder Surfing? Tips to Avoid It and Protect Your Privacy
Have you ever been in a crowded café, typing away on your laptop or entering your password on your phone, only to get that nagging feeling someone might be watching? Well, you might be right! Welcome to the world of shoulder surfing — an identity theft practice. It happens more often than you’d think, especially in busy public places. How to prevent shoulder surfing attacks and protect your private data? Keep reading to find out.
What is shoulder surfing?
Shoulder surfing in cybersecurity is a term used to describe someone secretly watching your screen or keyboard. They do this in public places like cafes, airports, or crowded areas where people are commonly using laptops, tablets, or phones.
The “shoulder surfer” positions themselves to peak into your sensitive information, like passwords or personal messages, by looking over your shoulder or from a nearby spot. This sneaky practice can be used for things like identity theft, selling your data on the dark web, or draining your bank accounts.
Examples of shoulder surfing
Most common shoulder surfing examples include:
- Password theft: A person secretly watches someone entering their password on a laptop or smartphone in a public place, for example, a coffee shop. They can then use that password to gain unauthorized access to the victim’s accounts.
- PIN observation: A shoulder surfer stands near an ATM and watches someone entering their PIN when withdrawing money. The shoulder surfer can then steal the victim’s debit card and use the PIN to steal money from their account.
- Spying on mobile transactions: A shoulder surfer peers over someone’s shoulder while they are making a mobile payment or entering credit card details during an online purchase.
- Login credential theft: A shoulder surfer watches someone log into their email or social media account on a public computer, intending to gain unauthorized access to the victim’s account.
- Eavesdropping on sensitive conversations: Someone listens in on a conversation in a public area where sensitive or private information is being discussed, such as financial details, personal secrets, or confidential business matters.
What can shoulder surfing lead to?
The consequences of shoulder surfing can be severe. Scammers can get hold of your personal information like name, address, Social Security number, and more. With this data, they can:
- cause financial havoc
- steal your identity
- take out loans in your name
- commit bank fraud
- access private photos or sensitive info you don’t want to be shared
The worst part is that many of these attacks go unnoticed until it’s too late. You might only realize your identity has been stolen when you get strange bills, find your bank account empty, or get rejected for loans. That’s why it’s important to stay vigilant in places where shoulder surfing happens the most.
Where does shoulder surfing happen?
Scammers usually target crowded environments like bars or restaurants, where they can steal your sensitive information without being noticed.
- Crowded environments: Scammers blend in and steal info in busy places like bars or airports.
- ATMs: They use “skimmers,” cameras, or listening devices to capture PINs and card details.
- Public transportation: Shoulder surfers observe phone passcodes or logins to access personal info later.
- Public Wi-Fi: Cybercriminals perform “man-in-the-middle” attacks to intercept sensitive data.
- Phone conversations: Scammers listen in on conversations to gather valuable details.
Once you know you’re at a higher risk of shoulder surfing theft, knowing how to prevent this attack is key.
How to prevent shoulder surfing
While not all shoulder surfing cases are based on malicious intent — observers are often motivated by curiosity and boredom — the possibility of private data leaks is real and a cause for concern. That’s why learning how to avoid it is important.
Here are some simple ways to prevent shoulder surfing.
- Physically shield your personal information
Use physical barriers like your body, hand, or paper to hide sensitive information while entering it, making it difficult for others to see. For example, when entering your PIN, cover it with your hand to protect it from shoulder surfers. Make it a habit to keep your financial information safe.
- Create strong passwords
Use strong and unique passwords for each account and update them regularly. Avoid using easy to guess info like birth dates or pet names.
- Avoid logging into accounts on public Wi-Fi networks — or use a VPN instead
Even though shoulder surfers might not directly steal your data, public Wi-Fi can make you vulnerable to other cyberattacks, like man-in-the-middle attacks or malware injection.
When you enter personal data on unsecured public Wi-Fi, your accounts could be at risk. To stay safe, use a VPN on public Wi-Fi. Without a VPN, sensitive information like bank details, personal photos, and login info will be exposed to potential threats, but a reliable VPN like VeePN will encrypt and protect your data.
- Add a privacy screen protector to your devices
Try privacy filters, also known as privacy screens, for added protection. These physical filters narrow your screen’s viewing angle, making it hard for others to see your screen from a distance, except when viewed straight-on.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA)
Two-factor authentication requires a second form of identification, like a verification code or call. This makes it harder for unauthorized users to log in even if they have your login details.
- Monitor your bank statements
If a shoulder surfer steals your info and accesses your accounts, catching it early can reduce the damage. Monitor your accounts regularly and report any suspicious transactions to your bank immediately.
- Log in with biometrics
Enable biometric authentication like fingerprint or facial recognition for logging into devices or online accounts, making it harder for hackers to gain access.
- Set up fraud alerts to monitor your credit and detect suspicious activities
Setting up fraud alerts is a simple process that can be done through the major credit bureaus. Here’s how to do it:
- Contact credit bureaus: Get in touch with one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. You only need to contact one bureau, as they are required to notify the other two.
- Request fraud alert: Request a fraud alert to be placed on your credit report. You can do this by phone or online, depending on the bureau’s preferred method.
- Provide necessary information: The credit bureau will ask for some basic identification information to verify your identity. This may include your name, Social Security number, date of birth, and address.
- Duration of the alert: Fraud alerts typically last for one year, but you can ask for an extended alert if you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
- Monitor your credit: Once the fraud alert is in place, the credit bureau will notify you of any suspicious activity or requests for credit in your name.
- Share sensitive information in private or call back later for safer transactions
If you need to provide sensitive information over the phone, do it in a private location or call back later when you can ensure a secure environment for the transaction.
- Avoid using ATMs in public places
Opt for ATMs located within secure locations, such as bank branches or indoor establishments. These are generally better protected.
Fell victim to shoulder surfing? Here’s what to do
Identity theft is real with shoulder surfing. If you suspect a shoulder lurker stole your identity, act quickly to resolve the situation. Follow these steps:
- Report to the authorities: Notify the FTC and/or file a police report with your local law enforcement.
- Inform financial institutions: Contact any businesses or lenders affected by the fraud using your information.
- Alert credit bureaus: Get in touch with one of the three nationwide credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion — to inform them of the fraudulent activity.
- Freeze your credit: Prevent scammers from opening new accounts in your name by freezing your credit.
- Secure your accounts: Change passwords and sign out unrecognized devices.
FAQ: What Is Shoulder Surfing?
What does shoulder mean in surfing?
The term “shoulder surfing” is used metaphorically to describe how a person stands close enough to someone else. A “shoulder surfer” positions themselves to peak into your sensitive information, like passwords or personal messages, by looking over your shoulder or from a nearby spot.
Why do people shoulder surf?
People shoulder surf to observe someone else’s screen or actions, especially in public places, and gather sensitive information like passwords or personal data without the person’s knowledge. This can lead to serious consequences, like identity theft. Learn more in this article.
What is shoulder surfing in finance?
Shoulder surfing refers to the act of observing someone entering their financial information, such as PINs or account numbers, at ATMs or payment terminals to gain unauthorized access to their accounts.
What is shoulder surfing theft?
Shoulder surfing theft involves stealing sensitive information as a result of secretly watching and memorizing someone’s login credentials, PINs, or other personal data. All to use it for malicious purposes, like identity theft or financial fraud.Toggle Content