Hack-tastic tales: When cybersecurity gets comically compromised

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Were you aware that one of the first known cyberattacks occurred in 1903? That's even before we started using plugs on electric appliances to connect with a socket (and without getting electrocuted!). And did you know that something as simple and seemingly innocent as a fish tank thermometer could create a vulnerability for cybercriminals to access confidential data? These are just a few of lesser-known examples of peculiar cyberattacks, social engineering scams and surprising security breaches that took their victims off guard.

Malicious hacks

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Many of us know by now that malicious hackers employ just about every devious method to exploit vulnerabilities and cause harm. Yet, now and then, some hackers choose to wreak havoc — with a little finesse.

A ratty situation

One of the earliest known cyberattacks dates back to 1903 when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi showcased his groundbreaking creation, the wireless telegraph (also known as the radio), to a gathering of scholars and authorities. The device enabled, for the first time, long-distance transmission of information via radio waves.

Not long after Marconi began presenting how the wondrous wireless technology worked, he received the shock of his life. Not an electric shock from the device but rather an embarrassing moment that stunned him. Unexpectedly, Marconi's receiver repeatedly began transmitting a single word in Morse code: rats. Amid the confusion, the receiver then began typing a poem: "There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily."

[Related: What spam emails look like — and how to stop them]

It turned out that the culprit behind the mischievous hack was the magician Nevil Maskelyne, hired by a competing wired telegraph company to expose any flaw with Marconi’s wireless machine.

A rebel paper trail

A surprising cyberattack occurred recently in my home country, Israel, where my friend experienced an unusual event while shopping at a local supermarket. As people were stocking up on groceries (in response to a war that broke the day before), the cash registers went haywire and the printers started churning out endless receipts. Each receipt had a single sentence printed in Hebrew that translated as "We will prevail."

A thermometer gone rogue

In 2018, cybercriminals attacked a North American casino by hacking into its internet-connected thermometer in one of its aquariums to get their foot in the network's door. Once in, the crooks were able to access a database of high-rolling gamblers.

Social engineering

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Social engineering is a method cybercriminals use to obtain sensitive information to breach security. These cybercriminals have mastered the art of mind gaming and apply their techniques to unsuspecting targets.

A 90s hit

Who remembers the glorious 90s, when email and the internet were first introduced for mass use? Those days, cybersecurity was in its infancy, and it was yet unclear how easily scammers could take advantage of this new technological wonder.

[Related: The future of email is now]

Criminals in Nigeria were among the first to jump on the train and began sending malicious emails to unsuspecting people. These scammers would usually introduce themselves as royalty and lure the recipient in by offering a share of their vast fortune if the victim agreed to assist with getting the money out of the scammer's country. They'd ask the victim to share their bank account number so they could transfer the money to them for safekeeping or as an advanced payment for their willingness to help. Once the unsuspecting person handed over the sensitive information, they soon realized they were a target of an embarrassing scam. These types of scams are still around today, so if you're one of those lucky somebodies who hits the jackpot, think again.

It's a good idea to open an email account with a supplier that offers enhanced protection to help detect spam emails and ensure your communications and sensitive personal information are kept secure.

Tank-ful of support

The T-72B3 is a new high-end tank manufactured in Russia by a company called Uralvagonzavod. When Aleksander Anatolevich — an unsuspecting Russian tech support representative for the company — got a call requesting help to investigate a malfunction with a T-72B3, he had no clue about what was about to happen.

[Related: Learn about Yahoo! Mail Plus in partnership with AT&T]

The caller was a Ukrainian soldier named Kochevnik, whose unit had captured a T-72B3 tank from the Russians. Russian forces widely employ it in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine that erupted on February 24, 2022. But when the Ukrainian unit ran into trouble operating the tank, Kochevnik didn't think twice and called the Russian manufacturer for assistance. Anatolevich answered and willfully helped Kochevnik, not realizing he was actually assisting his enemy operate a captured Russian tank — and being recorded doing so. Maybe the moral here is when in doubt about how to operate a seized enemy tank, give the enemy a call. Use a landline or a wireless phone with an international calling plan to avoid hefty fees. And remember, block your caller ID to keep your identity and location from being discovered.

How to protect yourself

While these stories may make you chuckle, cybersecurity is serious business. Never to assume you're protected enough from cyber attacks. Hackers are masterminds of stealth and trickery, so it is important to be educated on current cybersecurity tips and methods, take advantage of tools that enhance security and stay one step ahead of the enemy. Remember: When in doubt, have no doubt. Avoid giving away your personal information, never open suspicious links, and don't hesitate to report suspicious online behavior.

By Tamar Levin

Tamar Levin is a Sr. Digital Content Editor and writer at AT&T, specializing in wireless technology, innovations, and advancements. With dual Master of Science degrees from the University College London, Tamar brings over a decade of copywriting and editorial expertise to her role. Tamar is based out of the city of Dallas, Texas.