Kristen Maurer, the founder of a K-9 rescue charity, recently needed to be rescued herself from an attack she never saw coming.

The Magnolia woman said a cyber pirate hacked his way into her cellphone.

“It’s really terrifying because you have no idea what they can get into and what they can steal from you,” Maurer said.

Maurer is just one of the people who have been victimized by cyber criminals armed with wild-looking devices, like something out of “Star Wars,” that they use to electronically smash their way into people’s cellphones and then steal their most sensitive information.

In Maurer’s case, the thieves rang up hundreds of dollars on her credit card and hacked into her email as well.

”What these guys were able to do to me was break into my personal email address, break into my credit card, and utilize it for their benefit,” she said.

So, just what did she do wrong?

Absolutely nothing, other than use public Wi-Fi systems, just like millions of us do every day.

Cyber thieves have created a new scheme that targets public Wi-Fi users called Wi-Fi Jacking.

It’s a crime that allows the crooks to actually break into your smartphone and take whatever they want, according to United States Secret Service Agent Michael Alvarez, a specialist in forensic network intrusion.

”This crime has been called the ‘man-in-the-middle-attack’ or ‘Wi-Fi Jacking’ and what happens is these guys will set up outside of a public Wi-Fi location, and as long as they’re able to access the Wi-Fi signal from that location, they can impersonate that Wi-Fi and they can start setting up the attack,” Alvarez said.

Colman Ryan is a forensic cyber detective with Kgriff Investigations in Houston, and he showed KPRC 2 Investigates the high-tech equipment these criminals will use to pull off this crime.

“So, this is a very high-powered, directional antenna that these criminals use. It looks like a ray gun out of Star Wars, but it’s actually a very powerful tool. What they are going to do is aim this thing in the direction of potential victims at a coffee shop, hotel, or wherever there is a public Wi-Fi network and they’re going to force your smartphone onto their network. Once they do that, they can grab whatever they want from your phone, passwords, emails, credit card information, banking information,” Ryan said.

In fact, these cyber pirates, according to Ryan, can hack your phone even after you’ve left that public Wi-Fi location because your phone remembers that Wi-Fi network, and the thieves can connect it to your phone.

KPRC 2 asked Kelly Shidler, who also works in IT, to use the Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop to prove that.

When she left the place, we followed her home.

With Shidler’s help, KPRC 2 demonstrated how Ryan, using his high-powered antenna and the rest of his hacking equipment, could hack into her phone and take total control of it.

Parked down the block and across the street, 50 yards away, Ryan simply pointed his antenna at Shidler’s house and the crime began.

Ryan used the antenna to impersonate the Wi-Fi network that Shidler was on at the coffee shop.

He then forced her phone onto his network and – boom – he took control of her cellphone.

“I’m trying to force her phone onto my network. It’s coming, and, and I’ve got her. I am in control now of her phone,” Ryan explained.

To prove that Ryan’s actually had the control he was bragging about, we asked Shidler to go to a favorite website of hers, but she never got there.

Instead, Ryan sent her to an inappropriate adult website.

Shidler was both stunned and flabbergasted, not by the website, but by what had just been done to her phone without her permission.

“I didn’t want to go there. I can’t believe it,” Shidler said.

In Maurer’s case, it wasn’t just shock and surprise. Those hackers swept hundreds and hundreds of dollars after gaining access to her phone.

So, how do you stop this from happening to you?

We’ve got three easy ways to bulletproof yourself.

Step one:

Most important. Go to settings and turn the Wi-Fi off on your phone before you leave your home.

Step two:

If you absolutely have to use public Wi-Fi, before you leave that public Wi-Fi location, delete or tell your phone to forget that Wi-Fi address. Otherwise, it is stored in your phone for the future and for cyber thieves to hack into it.

Step three:

Safeguard your phone by installing a VPN or virtual private network.

Michael Alvarez with the Secret Service shared his recommendation.

”I would set up a virtual private network to ensure that you’re protected with encryption. That kind of scrambles all your data, so it doesn’t look where anybody can read it,” Alvarez said.

Step four:

Make sure when using your cellphone, laptop, or tablet, that you always accept the updates that are offered to you, to keep your security up to date.

Step five:

Make sure the browser you’re using has the universal, lock symbol on it, indicating it is protected. If it doesn’t have that, you are at risk of being hacked.

Take those critical steps to protect everything you’re carrying around in those tiny, little phones of yours.