What Is a Hacker? And How Can You Protect Yourself?

From white-hat hackers to cybercriminals, hacking attempts are more prevalent than ever before. Read our guide to learn more about hackers and how to protect yourself online.
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While there are many technical definitions of the word “hacker,” generally a hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to computer systems, programs, or networks. Hackers may be bad actors who exploit vulnerabilities, or they may be the good guys looking to find and fix problems.

Unfortunately, cyberattacks are getting more prevalent, and hackers are more active today than ever. Even with advanced hacking techniques, there are ways to protect yourself online. Some examples include Installing antivirus software on your device, using strong passwords stored in a password manager, and using a VPN whenever possible to protect your online identity.

Here’s everything you need to know about how hackers operate and how to protect yourself online.

In this article
What is a hacker?
How does hacking work?
How to protect yourself against hackers
7 types of hackers
Hacker FAQs
Bottom line

What is a hacker?

Simply put, a hacker is someone who digitally “breaks in” to an online computer system or network.

Many people may have a preconceived notion of hackers from movies and TV shows. When you hear the word “hacker,” you aren't alone if you think of a dimly lit room with a computer expert illuminated by the computer screen's glow and hunched over a keyboard.

However, not all hackers have malicious intent. Some companies even hire hackers to leverage their technical skills to help businesses identify security weaknesses.

How does hacking work?

Hackers use various tactics to accomplish their objectives. Below, we detail some of the most common hacking strategies.

  • Phishing: Phishing attacks are a common form of hacking that involves sending fraudulent emails or other messages while pretending to be someone else in order to obtain information. These phishing scams might look like emails or text messages from legitimate companies, but they’re actually from scammers looking to obtain your personal information.
  • Viruses: Hackers may install malware or viruses onto your device. These malicious software programs may log your activity or even take over your device remotely.
  • DDoS: A distributed denial-of-service (DDos) attack sends excessive amounts of traffic to a network, system, or service in an attempt to render the site non-functional. A hacker may try this tactic as a form of hacktivism or as an attempt to distract the company from other cyberattacks happening simultaneously.
  • Keylogging: Some programs allow hackers to track every keystroke on a device. Once installed, the hacker can access everything you do online, from account credentials to personal information like Social Security numbers, bank account information, and more — everything they need to commit identity theft.
  • Brute-force attack: A brute-force attack is a trial-and-error method of guessing passwords. While it’s a less sophisticated form of infiltration, hackers can still easily guess predictable passwords.

How to protect yourself against hackers

Fortunately, there are simple, straightforward ways to protect yourself from hackers, including using the right combination of antivirus software, VPNs, and password managers.

Get reliable antivirus software

Antivirus software programs are designed to protect your computer from viruses that can destroy data, crash your device, or give hackers access to your accounts.

Antivirus software works by scanning your programs and files and comparing them with well-known computer viruses, Trojans, and worms. If the antivirus software finds anything suspicious, it can delete it or quarantine it until you decide whether to remove it or not.

Below, we share our recommendations for top antivirus software programs, but if these don’t suit your needs, see our full guide to the best antivirus software programs.

  • TotalAV: TotalAV blocks tracking cookies and ads, monitors for data breaches, and allows users to schedule smart scans. TotalAV also offers a password vault to help manage passwords, which is an added bonus. One downside to TotalAV is that it lacks firewall protection.

    Get TotalAV | Read TotalAV Review
  • Bitdefender: Bitdefender offers all the features we look for in antivirus software, including malware and antivirus scan, phishing and social network protection, a firewall, ransomware and network protection, and parental controls. The main downside is that some features are left out for Apple products.

    Get Bitdefender | Read Bitdefender Review
  • Avast: Avast is a good option for those looking for affordable antivirus protection for multiple devices but aren’t concerned about additional bells and whistles like parental controls. We liked Avast for the phishing protection, firewall, real-time protection, and anti-fraud protection.

    Get Avast | Read Avast Review

Use trusted password managers

While it’s generally easy to remember a handful of tricky passwords, a password manager makes keeping track of difficult-to-crack passwords convenient. The program securely stores passwords and login credentials for various online accounts.

  • NordPass: A trusted name in cybersecurity, the NordPass password manager comes loaded with features like a password vault, multi-factor authentication, data breach alerts, and password reports. NordPass also gets extra points for using strong XChaCha20 encryption.

    Get NordPass | Read NordPass Review
  • LastPass: LastPass is a solid password manager, offering features like family profile and dark web monitoring in addition to 2FA, a password vault, and high-grade encryption. However, LastPass’ history with data breaches makes some a little leery of this password manager.

    Get LastPass | Read LastPass Review
  • Keeper: Keeper is an affordable password manager option that comes filled with features, including web vault access, a password generator, and two-factor authentication. Keeper also uses AES-256 encryption for extra security and offers a password strength report.

    Get Keeper | Read Keeper Review

Be suspicious of all incoming emails

If you receive an email from an unknown sender, proceed cautiously. Emails can contain phishing links or other scam attempts to steal your information and potentially hack your accounts.

Clicking on links may take you to spoofed versions of legitimate websites so that you enter in your personal information, and installing files from an email may install malware on your device.

Often, these emails come from a fake email address that looks legitimate. The only difference might be a letter or a small detail like an underscore.

To stay safe from email scams:

  • Make sure the display name matches the email address, and look out for any glaring spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Never follow a link from an email, no matter how legitimate it looks. Simply go to the website the email is coming from and sign in normally to verify the notification.

Practice basic cybersecurity hygiene

Online safety is a primary concern for anyone who spends time online. From phishing scams to malware, cybercriminals are always looking to obtain your personal, sensitive information. Fortunately, there are easy ways to protect yourself and your information.

Basic cybersecurity hygiene practices like the ones outlined below can keep you safe online.

  • Only download files or install programs from trusted sources
  • Ignore and block all spam emails
  • Enable two-factor or multi-factor authentication whenever possible
  • Use a password manager
  • Make sure all your devices are up-to-date on security updates

7 types of hackers

Hackers' motives may vary, whether a hacker is trying to pocket some cash, exploit a business’s weaknesses, or influence political or societal change. Some even consider themselves “ethical” hackers.

Here’s a list of some of the most common types of hackers around today.

  • Cybercriminals: These hackers are people who hack into systems with malicious intent, looking to steal your information or install malware. They typically have no regard for the legality of the crimes.
  • Blue-hat hackers: Organizations usually hire blue-hat hackers to test for security flaws. This type of hacking helps businesses be aware of potential weaknesses that cybercriminals could target in the future.
  • Gray-hat hackers: This group typically gets its name from the gray area in which it hacks. While they usually don’t have malicious intent, gray-hat hackers can obtain unauthorized access to systems. When they’ve hacked the system, they may inform the owners of any weaknesses and possibly offer to fix the flaws.
  • Red-hat hackers: These hackers are also known as “vigilante hackers.” They typically use their skills for good, trying to take down cybercriminals.
  • Hacktivists: Hacktivists are hackers who seek to influence societal or political change. They may break into networks and expose private information, such as communications or photos.
  • Ethical hackers: Ethical hacking uses hacking techniques to uncover, understand, and fix security vulnerabilities in a network or computer system. These types of hackers can conduct vulnerability assessments, malware analysis, and other informative security assessments.
  • Script kiddies: Script kiddies take a pre-written script and software to perform their amateur hacking attempts.

Hacker FAQs


What does a hacker do?

A hacker is a person who breaks into a computer system or network to install malware, steal information, disrupt service, or share a message to influence change. But hacking isn’t always malicious; some hackers are hired to help companies exploit weaknesses in their security systems.


Why do hackers hack people?

The reason for hacking varies depending on the hacker – some hackers are attempting to steal your information maliciously, others are trying to instill change, and still others are legally testing vulnerabilities and weaknesses.


How do you become an ethical hacker?

To become an ethical hacker, you need a strong background in computer programming, networks, systems, and an understanding of cybersecurity principles. You’ll also need to complete additional certifications and training like the Certified Ethical Hacker certification and the Offensive Security Certified Professional training.

Bottom line

As our dependence on the internet continues to increase, threats to our online security also continue to increase. Every internet user needs to be aware of hackers, whether their intentions are malicious or not.

Protecting yourself online is simple and straightforward, but it does require vigilance. Using randomly generated passwords is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself online, and the easiest way to remember those complex passwords is by using a top-notch password manager. Basic cybersecurity hygiene paired with a password manager and antivirus software is the cornerstone of digital protection.

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Author Details
Courtney Daybell brings over 15 years of experience in print journalism and holds a B.A. in Communications from Brigham Young University. Her focus has shifted to cyber security, where she specializes in topics such as identity theft protection, password managers, antivirus software, and more.