Those who use public charging stations risk getting their phones locked or their data and passwords exposed to scammers

By Joelle Goldstein
February 07, 2020 04:01 PM
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Credit: Valery MatytsinTASS via Getty

Public charging stations may be convenient for when your phone dies while you’re out, but officials are warning that it might not be the wisest decision to use them.

In a PSA video from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Deputy District Attorney Luke Sisak urged people to avoid using these stations in places like airports, malls, and hotels, as they pose a security threat for “juice jacking.”

According to Sisak, “juice jacking” is a USB charging scam where criminals load dangerous software onto the public stations or cables that are used to plug in phones.

Within minutes of “juicing” or charging a phone, the malware can cause unsuspecting owners to have their devices “jacked,” which means they could be locked or have their private data and passwords released to the scammer.

“Be warned: a free charge could end up draining your bank account,” Sisak said.

In order to avoid having your phone exposed to hackers, Sisak suggested using an AC power outlet instead of the stations, packing your own device chargers while traveling, and potentially purchasing a portable charger to keep in case of emergencies.

Sisak is one of many officials and experts who have urged people as of late to refrain from using these public charging stations.

To stress the importance of their message, a simulation of the charging station was recently set up by NBC News and cybersecurity expert Jim Stickley along the Port of San Diego in Southern California.

Together, they installed special hardware in a homemade charging station and then watched as dozens of unsuspecting people stopped to power their phones, allowing for Stickley to watch and record everything being shown on their screens with permission.

Over the course of the software experiment, Stickley was able to watch NBC News correspondent Vicky Nguyen enter her credit card number while shopping on Home Depot’s website and later, access a woman identified as Ruth’s personal Facebook messages.

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“Depending on the vulnerability they exploit, they would have access to everything you would have access to on your phone,” Stickley explained to the outlet of the stations, noting that personal emails are among some of the most dangerous information hackers could obtain because they can be used to reset passwords.

“Having access to your email has become very valuable, because, if you think about it, every account you have requires access to your email,” he explained to NBC News. “Everybody’s login is your email, and that’s the problem.”

Though Ruth gave NBC News permission to use her phone’s information as a demonstration, she acknowledged that the stations were surprisingly “dangerous.”

But Ruth isn’t the only person who would be shocked to discover how unsafe these charging stations are, according to Stickley.

“Most people assume their computers can be hacked,” he told NBC News. “Most people assume their phones can’t.”