September, 2017


11
Sep 17

The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know

It remains unclear whether those responsible for stealing Social Security numbers and other data on as many as 143 million Americans from big-three credit bureau Equifax intend to sell this data to identity thieves. But if ever there was a reminder that you — the consumer — are ultimately responsible for protecting your financial future, this is it. Here’s what you need to know and what you should do in response to this unprecedented breach.

Some of the Q&As below were originally published in a 2015 story, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze. It has been updated to include new information specific to the Equifax intrusion.

Q: What information was jeopardized in the breach?

A: Equifax was keen to point out that its investigation is ongoing. But for now, the data at risk includes Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses on 143 million Americans. Equifax also said the breach involved some driver’s license numbers (although it didn’t say how many or which states might be impacted), credit card numbers for roughly 209,000 U.S. consumers, and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers.”

Q: Was the breach limited to Americans?

A: No. Equifax said it believes the intruders got access to “limited personal information for certain UK and Canadian residents.” It has not disclosed what information for those residents was at risk or how many from Canada and the UK may be impacted.

Q: What is Equifax doing about this breach?

A: Equifax is offering one free year of their credit monitoring service. In addition, it has put up a Web site — www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — that tried to let people determine whether they were affected.

Q: That site tells me I was not affected by the breach. Am I safe?

A: As noted in this story from Friday, the site seems hopelessly broken, often returning differing results for the same data submitted at different times. In the absence of more reliable information from Equifax, it is safer to assume you ARE compromised.

Q: I read that the legal language in the terms of service that consumers must accept before enrolling in the free credit monitoring service from Equifax requires one to waive their rights to sue the company in connection with this breach. Is that true?

A: Not according to Equifax. The company issued a statement over the weekend saying that nothing in that agreement applies to this cybersecurity incident.

Q: So should I take advantage of the credit monitoring offer?

A: It can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t count on it protecting you from identity theft.

Q: Wait, what? I thought that was the whole point of a credit monitoring service?

A: The credit bureaus sure want you to believe that, but it’s not true in practice. These services do not prevent thieves from using your identity to open new lines of credit, and from damaging your good name for years to come in the process. The most you can hope for is that credit monitoring services will alert you soon after an ID thief does steal your identity.

Q: Well then what the heck are these services good for?

A: Credit monitoring services are principally useful in helping consumers recover from identity theft. Doing so often requires dozens of hours writing and mailing letters, and spending time on the phone contacting creditors and credit bureaus to straighten out the mess. In cases where identity theft leads to prosecution for crimes committed in your name by an ID thief, you may incur legal costs as well. Most of these services offer to reimburse you up to a certain amount for out-of-pocket expenses related to those efforts. But a better solution is to prevent thieves from stealing your identity in the first place.

Q: What’s the best way to do that?

A: File a security freeze — also known as a credit freeze — with the four major credit bureaus.

Q: What is a security freeze?

A: A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file). And because each credit inquiry caused by a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, the freeze also helps protect your score, which is what most lenders use to decide whether to grant you credit when you truly do want it and apply for it.

Q: What’s involved in freezing my credit file?

A: Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including EquifaxExperianInnovis and Trans Union.  It’s a good idea to keep your unfreeze PIN(s) in a folder in a safe place (perhaps along with your latest credit report), so that when and if you need to undo the freeze, the process is simple.

Q: How much is the fee, and how can I know whether I have to pay it?

A: The fee ranges from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning that it can cost upwards of $60 to place a freeze at all four credit bureaus (recommended). However, in most states, consumers can freeze their credit file for free at each of the major credit bureaus if they also supply a copy of a police report and in some cases an affidavit stating that the filer believes he/she is or is likely to be the victim of identity theft. In many states, that police report can be filed and obtained online. The fee covers a freeze as long as the consumer keeps it in place. Consumers Union has a useful breakdown of state-by-state fees. Continue reading →


8
Sep 17

Equifax Breach Response Turns Dumpster Fire

I cannot recall a previous data breach in which the breached company’s public outreach and response has been so haphazard and ill-conceived as the one coming right now from big-three credit bureau Equifax, which rather clumsily announced Thursday that an intrusion jeopardized Social security numbers and other information on 143 million Americans.

WEB SITE WOES

As noted in yesterday’s breaking story on this breach, the Web site that Equifax advertised as the place where concerned Americans could go to find out whether they were impacted by this breach — equifaxsecurity2017.com
is completely broken at best, and little more than a stalling tactic or sham at worst.

In the early hours after the breach announcement, the site was being flagged by various browsers as a phishing threat. In some cases, people visiting the site were told they were not affected, only to find they received a different answer when they checked the site with the same information on their mobile phones.

phonelaptopequifax

Others (myself included) received not a yes or no answer to the question of whether we were impacted, but instead a message that credit monitoring services we were eligible for were not available and to check back later in the month. The site asked users to enter their last name and last six digits of their SSN, but at the prompting of a reader’s comment I confirmed that just entering gibberish names and numbers produced the same result as the one I saw when I entered my real information: Come back on Sept. 13.

Who’s responsible for this debacle? Well, Equifax of course. But most large companies that can afford to do so hire outside public relations or disaster response firms to walk them through the safest ways to notify affected consumers. In this case, Equifax appears to have hired global PR firm Edelman PR.

What gives me this idea? Until just a couple of hours ago, the copy of WordPress installed at equifaxsecurity2017.com included a publicly accessible user database entry showing a user named “Edelman” was the first (and only?) user registered on the site.

Code that was publicly available on equifaxsecurity2017.com until very recently showed account information for an outside PR firm.

I reached out to Edelman for more information and will update this story when I hear from them.

EARLY WARNING?

In its breach disclosure Thursday, Equifax said it hired an outside computer security forensic firm to investigate as soon as it discovered unauthorized access to its Web site. ZDNet published a story Thursday saying that the outside firm was Alexandria, Va.-based Mandiant — a security firm bought by FireEye in 2014.

Interestingly, anyone who happened to have been monitoring look-alike domains for Equifax.com prior to yesterday’s breach announcement may have had an early clue about the upcoming announcement. One interesting domain that was registered on Sept. 5, 2017 is “equihax.com,” which according to domain registration records was purchased by an Alexandria, Va. resident named Brandan Schondorfer.

A quick Google search shows that Schondorfer works for Mandiant. Ray Watson, a cybersecurity researcher who messaged me this morning on Twitter about this curiosity, said it is likely that Mandiant has been registering domains that might be attractive to phishers hoping to take advantage of public attention to the breach and spoof Equifax’s domain.

Watson said it’s equally likely the equihax.com domain was registered to keep it out of the hands of people who may be looking for domain names they can use to lampoon Equifax for its breach. Schondorfer has not yet returned calls seeking comment.

EQUIFAX EXECS PULL GOLDEN PARACHUTES?

Bloomberg moved a story yesterday indicating that three top executives at Equifax sold millions of dollars worth of stock during the time between when the company says it discovered the breach and when it notified the public and investors.

Shares of Equifax’s stock on the New York Stock Exchange [NSYE:EFX] were down more than 13 percent at time of publication versus yesterday’s price.

The executives reportedly told Bloomberg they didn’t know about the breach when they sold their shares. A law firm in New York has already announced it is investigating potential insider trading claims against Equifax. Continue reading →


7
Sep 17

Breach at Equifax May Impact 143M Americans

Equifax, one of the “big-three” U.S. credit bureaus, said today a data breach at the company may have affected 143 million Americans, jeopardizing consumer Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers.

In a press release today, Equifax [NYSE:EFX] said it discovered the “unauthorized access” on July 29, after which it hired an outside forensics firm to investigate. Equifax said the investigation is still ongoing, but that the breach also jeopardized credit card numbers for roughly 209,000 U.S. consumers and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers.”

In addition, the company said it identified unauthorized access to “limited personal information for certain UK and Canadian residents,” and that it would work with regulators in those countries to determine next steps.

“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do. I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes,” said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard F. Smith in a statement released to the media, along with a video message. “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data, and we are conducting a thorough review of our overall security operations.”

Equifax said the attackers were able to break into the company’s systems by exploiting an application vulnerability to gain access to certain files. It did not say which application or which vulnerability was the source of the breach.

Equifax has set up a Web site — https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — that anyone concerned can visit to see if they may be impacted by the breach. The site also lets consumers enroll in TrustedID Premier, a 3-bureau credit monitoring service (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union) which also is operated by Equifax.

According to Equifax, when you begin, you will be asked to provide your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. Based on that information, you will receive a message indicating whether your personal information may have been impacted by this incident. Regardless of whether your information may have been impacted, the company says it will provide everyone the option to enroll in TrustedID Premier. The offer ends Nov. 21, 2017.

ANALYSIS

At time of publication, the Trustedid.com site Equifax is promoting for free credit monitoring services was only intermittently available, likely because of the high volume of traffic following today’s announcement.

As many readers here have shared in the comments already, the site Equifax has available for people to see whether they were impacted by the breach may not actually tell you whether you were affected. When I entered the last six digits of my SSN and my last name, the site threw a “system unavailable” page, asking me to try again later.

equifaxtry

When I tried again later, I received a notice stating my enrollment date for TrustedID Premier is Sept. 13, 2017, but it asked me to return again on or after that date to enroll. The message implied but didn’t say I was impacted.

enrollmentequifax

Maybe Equifax simply isn’t ready to handle everyone in America asking for credit protection all at once, but this could be seen as a ploy by the company assuming that many people simply won’t return again after news of the breach slips off of the front page.

Update, 11:40 p.m. ET: At a reader’s suggestion, I used a made-up last name and the last six digits of my Social Security number: The system returned the same response: Come back on Sept. 13. It’s difficult to tell if the site is just broken or if there is something more sinister going on here.

Also, perhaps because the site is so new and/or because there was a problem with one of the site’s SSL certificates, some browsers may be throwing a cert error when the site tries to load. This is the message that OpenDNS users are seeing right now if they try to visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com:

opendns-equifax

Original story:

Several readers who have taken my advice and placed security freezes (also called a credit freeze) on their file with Equifax have written in asking whether this intrusion means cybercriminals could also be in possession of the unique PIN code needed to lift the freeze.

So far, the answer seems to be “no.” Equifax was clear that its investigation is ongoing. However, in a FAQ about the breach, Equifax said it has found no evidence to date of any unauthorized activity on the company’s core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases. Continue reading →


5
Sep 17

Who Is Marcus Hutchins?

In early August 2017, FBI agents in Las Vegas arrested 23-year-old British security researcher Marcus Hutchins on suspicion of authoring and/or selling “Kronos,” a strain of malware designed to steal online banking credentials. Hutchins was virtually unknown to most in the security community until May 2017 when the U.K. media revealed him as the “accidental hero” who inadvertently halted the global spread of WannaCry, a ransomware contagion that had taken the world by storm just days before.

Relatively few knew it before his arrest, but Hutchins has for many years authored the popular cybersecurity blog MalwareTech. When this fact became more widely known — combined with his hero status for halting Wannacry — a great many MalwareTech readers quickly leapt to his defense to denounce his arrest. They reasoned that the government’s case was built on flimsy and scant evidence, noting that Hutchins has worked tirelessly to expose cybercriminals and their malicious tools. To date, some 226 supporters have donated more than $14,000 to his defense fund.

Marcus Hutchins, just after he was revealed as the security expert who stopped the WannaCry worm. Image: twitter.com/malwaretechblog

Marcus Hutchins, just after he was revealed as the security expert who stopped the WannaCry worm. Image: twitter.com/malwaretechblog

At first, I did not believe the charges against Hutchins would hold up under scrutiny. But as I began to dig deeper into the history tied to dozens of hacker forum pseudonyms, email addresses and domains he apparently used over the past decade, a very different picture began to emerge.

In this post, I will attempt to describe and illustrate more than three weeks’ worth of connecting the dots from what appear to be Hutchins’ earliest hacker forum accounts to his real-life identity. The clues suggest that Hutchins began developing and selling malware in his mid-teens — only to later develop a change of heart and earnestly endeavor to leave that part of his life squarely in the rearview mirror.

GH0STHOSTING/IARKEY

I began this investigation with a simple search of domain name registration records at domaintools.com [full disclosure: Domain Tools recently was an advertiser on this site]. A search for “Marcus Hutchins” turned up a half dozen domains registered to a U.K. resident by the same name who supplied the email address “surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk.”

One of those domains — Gh0sthosting[dot]com (the third character in that domain is a zero) — corresponds to a hosting service that was advertised and sold circa 2009-2010 on Hackforums[dot]net, a massively popular forum overrun with young, impressionable men who desperately wish to be elite coders or hackers (or at least recognized as such by their peers).

The surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk address tied to Gh0sthosting’s initial domain registration records also was used to register a Skype account named Iarkey that listed its alias as “Marcus.” A Twitter account registered in 2009 under the nickname “Iarkey” points to Gh0sthosting[dot]com.

Gh0sthosting was sold by a Hackforums user who used the same Iarkey nickname, and in 2009 Iarkey told fellow Hackforums users in a sales thread for his business that Gh0sthosting was “mainly for blackhats wanting to phish.” In a separate post just a few days apart from that sales thread, Iarkey responds that he is “only 15” years old, and in another he confirms that his email address is surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk.

daloseronly15

A review of the historic reputation tied to the Gh0sthosting domain suggests that at least some customers took Iarkey up on his offer: Malwaredomainlist.com, for example, shows that around this same time in 2009 Gh0sthosting was observed hosting plenty of malware, including trojan horse programs, phishing pages and malware exploits.

A “reverse WHOIS” search at Domaintools.com shows that Iarkey’s surfallday2day email address was used initially to register several other domains, including uploadwith[dot]us and thecodebases[dot]com.

Shortly after registering Gh0sthosting and other domains tied to his surfallday2day@hotmail.co.uk address, Iarkey evidently thought better of including his real name and email address in his domain name registration records. Thecodebases[dot]com, for example, changed its WHOIS ownership to a “James Green” in the U.K., and switched the email to “herpderpderp2@hotmail.co.uk.”

A reverse WHOIS lookup at domaintools.com for that email address shows it was used to register a Hackforums parody (or phishing?) site called Heckforums[dot]net. The domain records showed this address was tied to a Hackforums clique called “Atthackers.” The records also listed a Michael Chanata from Florida as the owner. We’ll come back to Michael Chanata and Atthackers at the end of this post. Continue reading →