FBI warns Americans against 'juice jacking'

Photo (c) Grace Cary - Getty Images

'Charging-only' cables might save the day

Let’s set the scene: You’re somewhere where your phone is starting to lose power so you look for a place to charge it. Could be a coffee shop, could be an airport. You find one, plug in, and all is good.

Except, that it may not be as good for you as it is for some guy sitting over in the corner pretending they're scrolling through social media when what they’re really doing is watching all your personal data move from your phone to their computer.

The FBI’s Denver office sent out word this week that while we think that public charging stations and cables are a convenience, they can be turned into a fiendish transmitter. Agents are advising people to avoid using free charging stations in airports, hotels, shopping centers, and other public locations.

“Bad actors have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices. Carry your own charger and USB cord and use an electrical outlet instead,” the agency tweeted out.

The juice-jacking jinx

This maneuver is known as “juice jacking” – you know, when your phone or tablet needs some “juice.” The FBI warns people that if you make the mistake of plugging your device into the wrong public charging station, you could wind up with malware that will shut down and lock up your device and have a field day with the private data you’ve got sitting on your phone, like credit card numbers and passwords.

“USB connections were designed to work as both data and power transfer mediums, with no strict barrier between the two,” the FBI’s Oregon field office said.

“There is also ‘video jacking,’ where a bad actor could record and mirror the screen of a device that was plugged in for a charge. Another potential problem: that free USB cable you got as a promotional item can also be risky. Microcontrollers and electronic parts have become so small these days that criminals can hide mini-computers and malware inside a USB cable itself.”

Is there a solution?

Fortunately, there are workarounds – both affordable and easy. Brandon Afari co-CEO and co-founder of chargeFUZE, told ConsumerAffairs that one solution for people traveling through airports is to look for kiosks that are equipped with portable power banks for rent, allowing people to charge their devices on the go.

“These power banks are secure and reliable and can help protect consumers from the risks associated with juice jacking and other forms of charging-related attacks,” he said, adding that in addition to those chargers allowing you to charge on the go, they usually come with all the cabling you need. 

Speaking of power banks, one person who responded to the Denver FBI tweet said that a smart move would be to charge your power bank at a public charge station, then charge your phone using your power bank.

Another piece of advice is to stick strictly to electrical outlets. Macworld’s best advice for iPhone owners who want to charge their iPhone in a public place is to use their own chargers instead.

“Most public charging stations also contain electrical outlets, so you should use your own charger and cable in one of those,” suggested Macworld’s Jason Cross.

Oregon’s FBI team also shared a tip that most consumers aren’t aware of – using a “charging-only” cable which prevents data from sending or receiving while charging.

ConsumerAffairs did some research on that option and found plenty of products available on Amazon in the $10-$13 ballpark. The important thing to look for is verbiage in the “About” section that says something to the effect of “Just for charging not for syncing data.” Otherwise, you might be buying an imposter cable that says it’s for “charging only” just to show up in searches for that term, but it’s really not.

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