KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sitting in front of the computer in his kitchen, a man scrolls through Facebook staring blankly at the screen. He has no idea someone miles and miles away is watching him. His computer and webcam are infected with a RAT.
“A Remote Administration Tool, or RAT, is just a piece of software that a bad guy will slip on to somebody's machine through a variety of different means,” technology expert and Deputy Editor at Ars Technica Nate Anderson said.
The hackers can see the man’s face, his desktop and can take control of his computer and even see what he's typing -- including his passwords. Anderson said webcams are what RAT operators like most.
“You can get unbelievable reactions out of people by watching them through their own webcam,” he explains. “And through doing all sorts of crazy things to their computer they don't expect.”
Countless videos brag of RAT pranks on YouTube. Another clip captures a young boy sitting in front of his computer. The audio of the hackers reveals one of them saying “I’m gonna make him horrified!”
They take over his computer, and in the video boxes pop up, you see web addresses typed, followed by laughter. Suddenly the boy covers his eyes. The hacker’s reaction is downright cruel as he says: “Is he crying? Oh my God. I think we made a kid cry.”
Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf, knows what RATs are. She went public last year after a RAT infected her laptop. Through her webcam, the hacker caught video of her changing in her bedroom. He then tried to blackmail her with the nude photos, which he posted on her Twitter and Facebook accounts. She turned to the FBI.
“You know, I don't think he realizes the consequences that he's done and the people that he hurt,” Wolf said on the Today show. “He terrorized me and many girls for so long.”
So how do hackers plant these RATs? They send their victims random emails with links to click, or post messages on Facebook. Once the victim clicks, they can have no idea what is now lurking in their computer.
In Wolf's case, the FBI arrested 19-year-old science student Jared James Abraham for infecting her computer with malicious software. He attended her high school, but Wolf said she didn’t know him. Abraham recently pleaded guilty to extortion.
The FBI says computer users have to be savvy when it comes to avoiding scams.
“If you click on an attachment or an email or even a drive-by malware, where you get a virus on your computer,” explains Bridget Patton. “Sometimes those viruses or that malicious software can actually control your webcam.”
The FBI investigates these cases but only a few, like Wolf's, have received much attention.
Anderson advises watching the light on your laptop’s webcam. When it’s off, the light is off.
“When your camera is active, the light always comes on,” he said.
The FBI advises you take it one step further.
“When you're not using it, you need to turn your computer off,” Patton said. “If you're not using your laptop, you need to close the lid.”
Other defenses against falling victim to a RAT operator:
• Don’t click on anything suspicious.
• Maintain strong anti-virus software to fight malware.
• Place a piece of tape over your webcam when it’s not in use.