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Agents beware: Charging phones this way can be risky

11/20/2019

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More than most professionals, real estate agents tend to find themselves on the go. And that often means finding new places to charge various electronic devices after, or during, a long day of phone calls and texts with clients.

However, officials this week issued a stark warning: If you plug into a public USB charger, you may well end up getting hacked.

The warning comes from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. It explains that hackers can use a tactic known as “juice jacking” that involves loading malicious software into public charging stations or cables. When someone plugs a device into the infected station or cable, the device becomes infected as well.

“Be warned, a free charge could end up draining your bank account,” Luke Sisak, a deputy district attorney in L.A. County, said in a video about the scam.

Sisak added that within minutes of plugging into an infected charging station, the malicious software, or malware, could lock an electronic device, steal passwords or send a full backup of the phone to a criminal.

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The L.A. County district attorney’s warning specifically mentions the risk to travelers, who may encounter public USB chargers at airports and hotels, and comes as the holiday travel season heats up.

But the juice jacking concept can be deployed at any time and in any location that has public USB charging stations. That includes cafes, restaurants, conference centers and more — many of which are exactly the kind of place real estate agents use between home showings and client meetings. Indeed, while some Americans may only face the prospect of juice jacking during infrequent travel experiences, real estate agents who spend time in the field theoretically face a heightened risk all the time.

Real estate has also become a frequent target for hackers generally. A report last year found, for example, that real estate companies had suffered an average of 277 cyber attacks since the third quarter of 2017. Hackers are drawn to real estate, the report revealed, because the industry specializes in high-value transactions that often have online components.

Federal officials also warned earlier this year of a 1,100 percent rise in real estate phishing scams. The scams involve hackers sending bogus emails that appear legitimate, and which can trick people into sharing personal information or even cash. In one case last year, an Oregon man actually lost his entire downpayment in a phishing scam (though that case had an atypically happy ending in which he earned the money back by working for his title company).

Now, agents have to add the specter of juice jacking to the growing list of potential threats.

Luckily, however, there are safety precautions that can reduce the risk. For example, the L.A. County district attorney’s office urged people to only plug their devices into an AC power outlet, rather than a USB station, and to carry or consider buying portable chargers.

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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