English student Rachel Hyndman was using her laptop to watch a DVD in her bathroom when she noticed her webcam suddenly turned itself on.
Miss Hyndman, 20, from Glasgow, said: ‘I was in the bath, trying to relax, and then programs on my computer came on like a ghost was using it. I couldn’t regain control of it.
‘It was terrifying to think people had been looking at me without me knowing. I wondered how often they had done it without me realising. The thought someone had access to me in this private moment is horrifying.’
Miss Hyndman, who also works in a computer shop, said she considered going to the police but feared they would laugh at her.
Called ‘ratting’, hackers can send out an internet virus that allows them access to a person’s desktop computer or laptop without their knowledge.
They can then switch on the webcam – built in to most new computers – and watch people in the privacy of their living rooms and bedrooms without them realising they are being closely observed.
A webcam is a video camera that feeds images in ‘real time’ to another computer, computer network or the internet.
A BBC Radio 5 Live investigation found the illegal practice is now so prevalent there is even a profitable underground market selling the ability to watch victims, who are dubbed ‘slaves’, for a few pounds.
More worryingly, paedophiles are using the technique to target youngsters – mainly girls – who have computers in their bedrooms.
The technique works by fooling the victim into downloading a piece of software on to their computer.
This is usually done by sending an email requesting the user to click the link to see a picture or listen to a song. Teenagers have been targeted through internet links advertising diet tips or celebrity stories.
Once installed, the ‘remote administration tool’ (RAT) software allows hackers to take control of the machine at any time – similar to how IT workers fix office computers remotely.
Hackers can then use a victim’s home computers as if sitting at it – doing everything from switching on the webcam to looking through personal files on the hard drive.
A 16-year-old from London called ‘John’ told investigators he had hacked more than 100 computers – using the webcams to view the victims on about half of them.
He said: ‘I wasn’t really looking for anything, just their reactions. I’d open random sites [while the person sat at their computer] – shock sites – they’d see a scary picture or someone screaming, and you’d see they were scared. There are creepy people who post pictures of female slaves. I’m not really into that.’
He added: ‘Yeah, it is illegal. But the risk of getting caught isn’t that much. It’s just a bit of a laugh.’ Matthew Anderson, 36, was jailed for 18 months after he was found guilty of infecting more than 200,000 computers with a virus that allowed their webcams to be hacked.
The father-of-five, from Banffshire, Scotland, had watched dozens of women in their own homes, including girls as young as 16. He boasted to fellow international hackers he watched a teenager and her sister for hours and lamented how she had not got naked in front of him.
Tony Neate, of the Government’s Get Safe Online campaign, said: ‘As more cases of “ratting” come to light, there is a serious need to educate the public about the methods hackers use to access the private lives of innocent people.’
There is a range of ways to prevent being spied on, experts said. Covering the webcam with a piece of paper and installing anti-virus software will prevent most hacking attempts and delete RATs.
Mr Neate said: ‘The most at-risk computers are those running older software, and those without up-to-date anti-virus software installed.’
The Association of Chief Police Officers said: ‘Police have come across webcam hacking through cyber investigations. Any unauthorised intrusion into an individual’s computer is an offence under the Computer Misuse Act.’