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26
Sep 17

Breach at Sonic Drive-In May Have Impacted Millions of Credit, Debit Cards

Sonic Drive-In, a fast-food chain with nearly 3,600 locations across 45 U.S. states, has acknowledged a breach affecting an unknown number of store payment systems. The ongoing breach may have led to a fire sale on millions of stolen credit and debit card accounts that are now being peddled in shadowy underground cybercrime stores, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

sonicdrivein

The first hints of a breach at Oklahoma City-based Sonic came last week when I began hearing from sources at multiple financial institutions who noticed a recent pattern of fraudulent transactions on cards that had all previously been used at Sonic.

I directed several of these banking industry sources to have a look at a brand new batch of some five million credit and debit card accounts that were first put up for sale on Sept. 18 in a credit card theft bazaar previously featured here called Joker’s Stash:

This batch of some five million cards put up for sale Sept. 26, 2017 on the popular carding site Joker's Stash has been tied to a breach at Sonic Drive-In

This batch of some five million cards put up for sale today (Sept. 26, 2017) on the popular carding site Joker’s Stash has been tied to a breach at Sonic Drive-In. The first batch of these cards appear to have been uploaded for sale on Sept. 15.

Sure enough, two sources who agreed to purchase a handful of cards from that batch of accounts on sale at Joker’s discovered they all had been recently used at Sonic locations.

Armed with this information, I phoned Sonic, which responded within an hour that it was indeed investigating “a potential incident” at some Sonic locations.

“Our credit card processor informed us last week of unusual activity regarding credit cards used at SONIC,” reads a statement the company issued to KrebsOnSecurity. “The security of our guests’ information is very important to SONIC. We are working to understand the nature and scope of this issue, as we know how important this is to our guests. We immediately engaged third-party forensic experts and law enforcement when we heard from our processor. While law enforcement limits the information we can share, we will communicate additional information as we are able.”

Christi Woodworth, vice president of public relations at Sonic, said the investigation is still in its early stages, and the company does not yet know how many or which of its stores may be impacted.

The accounts apparently stolen from Sonic are part of a batch of cards that Joker’s Stash is calling “Firetigerrr,” and they are indexed by city, state and ZIP code. This geographic specificity allows potential buyers to purchase only cards that were stolen from Sonic customers who live near them, thus avoiding a common anti-fraud defense in which a financial institution might block out-of-state transactions from a known compromised card. Continue reading →


25
Sep 17

Source: Deloitte Breach Affected All Company Email, Admin Accounts

Deloitte, one of the world’s “big four” accounting firms, has acknowledged a breach of its internal email systems, British news outlet The Guardian revealed today. Deloitte has sought to downplay the incident, saying it impacted “very few” clients. But according to a source close to the investigation, the breach dates back to at least the fall of 2016, and involves the compromise of all administrator accounts at the company as well as Deloitte’s entire internal email system.

deloitte

In a story published Monday morning, The Guardian said a breach at Deloitte involved usernames, passwords and personal data on the accountancy’s top blue-chip clients.

“The Guardian understands Deloitte clients across all of these sectors had material in the company email system that was breached,” The Guardian’s Nick Hopkins wrote. “The companies include household names as well as US government departments. So far, six of Deloitte’s clients have been told their information was ‘impacted’ by the hack.”

In a statement sent to KrebsOnSecurity, Deloitte acknowledged a “cyber incident” involving unauthorized access to its email platform.

“The review of that platform is complete,” the statement reads. “Importantly, the review enabled us to understand precisely what information was at risk and what the hacker actually did and to determine that only very few clients were impacted [and] no disruption has occurred to client businesses, to Deloitte’s ability to continue to serve clients, or to consumers.”

However, information shared by a person with direct knowledge of the incident said the company in fact does not yet know precisely when the intrusion occurred, or for how long the hackers were inside of its systems.

This source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the team investigating the breach focused their attention on a company office in Nashville known as the “Hermitage,” where the breach is thought to have begun.

The source confirmed The Guardian reporting that current estimates put the intrusion sometime in the fall of 2016, and added that investigators still are not certain that they have completely evicted the intruders from the network.

Indeed, it appears that Deloitte has known something was not right for some time. According to this source, the company sent out a “mandatory password reset” email on Oct. 13, 2016 to all Deloitte employees in the United States. The notice stated that employee passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs) needed to be changed by Oct. 17, 2016, and that employees who failed to do so would be unable to access email or other Deloitte applications. The message also included advice on how to pick complex passwords:

A screen shot of the mandatory password reset email Deloitte sent to all U.S. employees in Oct. 2016, around the time sources say the breach was first discovered.

A screen shot of the mandatory password reset message Deloitte sent to all U.S. employees in Oct. 2016, around the time sources say the breach was first discovered.

The source told KrebsOnSecurity they were coming forward with information about the breach because, “I think it’s unfortunate how we have handled this and swept it under the rug. It wasn’t a small amount of emails like reported. They accessed the entire email database and all admin accounts. But we never notified our advisory clients or our cyber intel clients.” Continue reading →


25
Sep 17

Canadian Man Gets 9 Months Detention for Serial Swattings, Bomb Threats

A 19-year-old Canadian man was found guilty of making almost three dozen fraudulent calls to emergency services across North America in 2013 and 2014. The false alarms, two of which targeted this author — involved phoning in phony bomb threats and multiple attempts at “swatting” — a dangerous hoax in which the perpetrator spoofs a call about a hostage situation or other violent crime in progress in the hopes of tricking police into responding at a particular address with deadly force.

Curtis Gervais of Ottawa was 16 when he began his swatting spree, which prompted police departments across the United States and Canada to respond to fake bomb threats and active shooter reports at a number of schools and residences.

Gervais, who taunted swatting targets using the Twitter accounts “ProbablyOnion” and “ProbablyOnion2,” got such a high off of his escapades that he hung out a for-hire shingle on Twitter, offering to swat anyone with the following tweet:

wantswat

Several Twitter users apparently took him up on that offer. On March 9, 2014, @ProbablyOnion started sending me rude and annoying messages on Twitter. A month later (and several weeks after blocking him on Twitter), I received a phone call from the local police department. It was early in the morning on Apr. 10, and the cops wanted to know if everything was okay at our address.

Since this was not the first time someone had called in a fake hostage situation at my home, the call I received came from the police department’s non-emergency number, and they were unsurprised when I told them that the Krebs manor and all of its inhabitants were just fine.

Minutes after my local police department received that fake notification, @ProbablyOnion was bragging on Twitter about swatting me, including me on his public messages: “You have 5 hostages? And you will kill 1 hostage every 6 times and the police have 25 minutes to get you $100k in clear plastic.” Another message read: “Good morning! Just dispatched a swat team to your house, they didn’t even call you this time, hahaha.”

po2-swatbk

I told this user privately that targeting an investigative reporter maybe wasn’t the brightest idea, and that he was likely to wind up in jail soon.  On May 7, @ProbablyOnion tried to get the swat team to visit my home again, and once again without success. “How’s your door?” he tweeted. I replied: “Door’s fine, Curtis. But I’m guessing yours won’t be soon. Nice opsec!”

I was referring to a document that had just been leaked on Pastebin, which identified @ProbablyOnion as a 19-year-old Curtis Gervais from Ontario. @ProbablyOnion laughed it off but didn’t deny the accuracy of the information, except to tweet that the document got his age wrong.

A day later, @ProbablyOnion would post his final tweet before being arrested: “Still awaiting for the horsies to bash down my door,” a taunting reference to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

A Sept. 14, 2017 article in the Ottawa Citizen doesn’t name Gervais because it is against the law in Canada to name individuals charged with or convicted of crimes committed while they are a minor. But the story quite clearly refers to Gervais, who reportedly is now married and expecting a child. Continue reading →


24
Sep 17

Equifax or Equiphish?

More than a week after it said most people would be eligible to enroll in a free year of its TrustedID identity theft monitoring service, big three consumer credit bureau Equifax has begun sending out email notifications to people who were able to take the company up on its offer. But in yet another security stumble, the company appears to be training recipients to fall for phishing scams.

Some people who signed up for the service after Equifax announced Sept. 7 that it had lost control over Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive data on 143 million Americans are still waiting for the promised notice from Equifax. But as I recently noted on Twitter, other folks have received emails from Equifax over the past few days, and the messages do not exactly come across as having emanated from a company that cares much about trying to regain the public’s trust.

Here’s a redacted example of an email Equifax sent out to one recipient recently:

equifaxcare

As we can see, the email purports to have been sent from trustedid.com, a domain that Equifax has owned for almost four years. However, Equifax apparently decided it was time for a new — and perhaps snazzier — name: trustedidpremier.com.

The above-pictured message says it was sent from one domain, and then asks the recipient to respond by clicking on a link to a completely different (but confusingly similar) domain.

My guess is the reason Equifax registered trustedidpremier.com was to help people concerned about the breach to see whether they were one of the 143 million people affected (for more on how that worked out for them, see Equifax Breach Response Turns Dumpster Fire). I’d further surmise that Equifax was expecting (and received) so much interest in the service as a result of the breach that all the traffic from the wannabe customers might swamp the trustedid.com site and ruin things for the people who were already signed up for the service before Equifax announced the breach on Sept. 7.

The problem with this dual-domain approach is that the domain trustedidpremier.com is only a few weeks old, so it had very little time to establish itself as a legitimate domain. As a result, in the first few hours after Equifax disclosed the breach the domain was actually flagged as a phishing site by multiple browsers because it was brand new and looked about as professionally designed as a phishing site.

What’s more, there is nothing tying the domain registration records for trustedidpremier.com to Equifax: The domain is registered to a WHOIS privacy service, which masks information about who really owns the domain (again, not exactly something you might expect from an identity monitoring site). Anyone looking for assurances that the site perhaps was hosted on Internet address space controlled by and assigned to Equifax would also be disappointed: The site is hosted at Amazon.

While there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, one might reasonably ask: Why didn’t Equifax just send the email from Equifax.com and host the ID theft monitoring service there as well? Wouldn’t that have considerably lessened any suspicion that this missive might be a phishing attempt?

Perhaps, but you see while TrustedID is technically owned by Equifax Inc., its services are separate from Equifax and its terms of service are different from those provided by Equifax (almost certainly to separate Equifax from any consumer liability associated with its monitoring service).

THE BACKSTORY

What’s super-interesting about trustedid.com is that it didn’t always belong to Equifax. According to the site’s Wikipedia page, TrustedID Inc. was purchased by Equifax in 2013, but it was founded in 2004 as an identity protection company which offered a service that let consumers automatically “freeze” their credit file at the major bureaus. A freeze prevents Equifax and the other major credit bureaus from selling an individual’s credit data without first getting consumer consent.

By 2006, some 17 states offered consumers the ability to freeze their credit files, and the credit bureaus were starting to see the freeze as an existential threat to their businesses (in which they make slightly more than a dollar each time a potential creditor — or ID thief — asks to peek at your credit file).

Other identity monitoring firms — such as LifeLock — were by then offering services that automated the placement of identity fraud controls — such as the “fraud alert,” a free service that consumers can request to block creditors from viewing their credit files.

[Author’s note: Fraud alerts only last for 90 days, although you can renew them as often as you like. More importantly, while lenders and service providers are supposed to seek and obtain your approval before granting credit in your name if you have a fraud alert on your file, they are not legally required to do this — and very often don’t.]

Anyway, the era of identity monitoring services automating things like fraud alerts and freezes on behalf of consumers effectively died after a landmark lawsuit filed by big-three bureau Experian (which has its own storied history of data breaches). In 2008, Experian sued LifeLock, arguing its practice of automating fraud alerts violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

In 2009, a court found in favor of Experian, and that decision effectively killed such services — mainly because none of the banks wanted to distribute them and sell them as a service anymore. Continue reading →


21
Sep 17

Experian Site Can Give Anyone Your Credit Freeze PIN

An alert reader recently pointed my attention to a free online service offered by big-three credit bureau Experian that allows anyone to request the personal identification number (PIN) needed to unlock a consumer credit file that was previously frozen at Experian.

Experian's page for retrieving someone's credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

Experian’s page for retrieving someone’s credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

The first hurdle for instantly revealing anyone’s freeze PIN is to provide the person’s name, address, date of birth and Social Security number (all data that has been jeopardized in breaches 100 times over — including in the recent Equifax breach — and that is broadly for sale in the cybercrime underground).

After that, one just needs to input an email address to receive the PIN and swear that the information is true and belongs to the submitter. I’m certain this warning would deter all but the bravest of identity thieves!

The final authorization check is that Experian asks you to answer four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions. As I have noted in countless stories published here previously, the problem with relying on KBA questions to authenticate consumers online is that so much of the information needed to successfully guess the answers to those multiple-choice questions is now indexed or exposed by search engines, social networks and third-party services online — both criminal and commercial.

What’s more, many of the companies that provide and resell these types of KBA challenge/response questions have been hacked in the past by criminals that run their own identity theft services.

“Whenever I’m faced with KBA-type questions I find that database tools like Spokeo, Zillow, etc are my friend because they are more likely to know the answers for me than I am,” said Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher in networking and security for the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI).

The above quote from Mr. Weaver came in a story from May 2017 which looked at how identity thieves were able to steal financial and personal data for over a year from TALX, an Equifax subsidiary that provides online payroll, HR and tax services. Equifax says crooks were able to reset the 4-digit PIN given to customer employees as a password and then steal W-2 tax data after successfully answering KBA questions about those employees.

In short: Crooks and identity thieves broadly have access to the data needed to reliably answer KBA questions on most consumers. That is why this offering from Experian completely undermines the entire point of placing a freeze.  Continue reading →


20
Sep 17

Equifax Breach: Setting the Record Straight

Bloomberg published a story this week citing three unnamed sources who told the publication that Equifax experienced a breach earlier this year which predated the intrusion that the big-three credit bureau announced on Sept. 7. To be clear, this earlier breach at Equifax is not a new finding and has been a matter of public record for months. Furthermore, it was first reported on this Web site in May 2017.

equihaxIn my initial Sept. 7 story about the Equifax breach affecting more than 140 million Americans, I noted that this was hardly the first time Equifax or another major credit bureau has experienced a breach impacting a significant number of Americans.

On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity reported that fraudsters exploited lax security at Equifax’s TALX payroll division, which provides online payroll, HR and tax services.

That story was about how Equifax’s TALX division let customers who use the firm’s payroll management services authenticate to the service with little more than a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN).

Identity thieves who specialize in perpetrating tax refund fraud figured out that they could reset the PINs of payroll managers at various companies just by answering some multiple-guess questions — known as “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions — such as previous addresses and dates that past home or car loans were granted.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Bloomberg ran a piece with reporting from no fewer than five journalists there who relied on information provided by three anonymous sources. Those sources reportedly spoke in broad terms about an earlier breach at Equifax, and told the publication that these two incidents were thought to have been perpetrated by the same group of hackers.

The Bloomberg story did not name TALX. Only post-publication did Bloomberg reporters update the piece to include a statement from Equifax saying the breach was unrelated to the hack announced on Sept. 7, and that it had to do with a security incident involving a payroll-related service during the 2016 tax year.

I have thus far seen zero evidence that these two incidents are related. Equifax has said the unauthorized access to customers’ employee tax records (we’ll call this “the March breach” from here on) happened between April 17, 2016 and March 29, 2017.

The criminals responsible for unauthorized activity in the March breach were participating in an insidious but common form of cybercrime known as tax refund fraud, which involves filing phony tax refund requests with the IRS and state tax authorities using the personal information from identity theft victims.

My original report on the March breach was based on public breach disclosures that Equifax was required by law to file with several state attorneys general.

Because the TALX incident exposed the tax and payroll records of its customers’ employees, the victim customers were in turn required to notify their employees as well. That story referenced public breach disclosures from five companies that used TALX, including defense contractor giant Northrop Grumman; staffing firm Allegis GroupSaint-Gobain Corp.; Erickson Living; and the University of Louisville.

When asked Tuesday about previous media coverage of the March breach, Equifax pointed National Public Radio (NPR) to coverage in KrebsonSecurity.

One more thing before I move on to the analysis. For more information on why KBA is a woefully ineffective method of stopping fraudsters, see this story from 2013 about how some of the biggest vendors of these KBA questions were all hacked by criminals running an identity theft service online.

Or, check out these stories about how tax refund fraudsters used weak KBA questions to steal personal data on hundreds of thousands of taxpayers directly from the Internal Revenue Service‘s own Web site. It’s probably worth mentioning that Equifax provided those KBA questions as well.

ANALYSIS

Over the past two weeks, KrebsOnSecurity has received an unusually large number of inquiries from reporters at major publications who were seeking background interviews so that they could get up to speed on Equifax’s spotty security history (sadly, Bloomberg was not among them).

These informational interviews — in which I agree to provide context and am asked to speak mainly on background — are not unusual; I sometimes field two or three of these requests a month, and very often more when time permits. And for the most part I am always happy to help fellow journalists make sure they get the facts straight before publishing them.

But I do find it slightly disturbing that there appear to be so many reporters on the tech and security beats who apparently lack basic knowledge about what these companies do and their roles in perpetuating — not fighting — identity theft.

It seems to me that some of the world’s most influential publications have for too long given Equifax and the rest of the credit reporting industry a free pass — perhaps because of the complexities involved in succinctly explaining the issues to consumers. Indeed, I would argue the mainstream media has largely failed to hold these companies’ feet to the fire over a pattern of lax security and a complete disregard for securing the very sensitive consumer data that drives their core businesses.

To be sure, Equifax has dug themselves into a giant public relations hole, and they just keep right on digging. On Sept. 8, I published a story equating Equifax’s breach response to a dumpster fire, noting that it could hardly have been more haphazard and ill-conceived.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since then, Equifax’s response to this incident has been even more astonishingly poor.

EQUIPHISH

On Tuesday, the official Equifax account on Twitter replied to a tweet requesting the Web address of the site that the company set up to give away its free one-year of credit monitoring service. That site is https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, but the company’s Twitter account told users to instead visit securityequifax2017[dot]com, which is currently blocked by multiple browsers as a phishing site.

equiphish

Continue reading →


14
Sep 17

Equifax Hackers Stole 200k Credit Card Accounts in One Fell Swoop

Visa and MasterCard are sending confidential alerts to financial institutions across the United States this week, warning them about more than 200,000 credit cards that were stolen in the epic data breach announced last week at big-three credit bureau Equifax. At first glance, the private notices obtained by KrebsOnSecurity appear to suggest that hackers initially breached Equifax starting in November 2016. But Equifax says the accounts were all stolen at the same time — when hackers accessed the company’s systems in mid-May 2017.

equifax-hq

Both Visa and MasterCard frequently send alerts to card-issuing financial institutions with information about specific credit and debit cards that may have been compromised in a recent breach. But it is unusual for these alerts to state from which company the accounts were thought to have been pilfered.

In this case, however, Visa and MasterCard were unambiguous, referring to Equifax specifically as the source of an e-commerce card breach.

In a non-public alert sent this week to sources at multiple banks, Visa said the “window of exposure” for the cards stolen in the Equifax breach was between Nov. 10, 2016 and July 6, 2017. A similar alert from MasterCard included the same date range.

“The investigation is ongoing and this information may be amended as new details arise,” Visa said in its confidential alert, linking to the press release Equifax initially posted about the breach on Sept. 7, 2017.

The card giant said the data elements stolen included card account number, expiration date, and the cardholder’s name. Fraudsters can use this information to conduct e-commerce fraud at online merchants.

It would be tempting to conclude from these alerts that the card breach at Equifax dates back to November 2016, and that perhaps the intruders then managed to install software capable of capturing customer credit card data in real-time as it was entered on one of Equifax’s Web sites.

Indeed, that was my initial hunch in deciding to report out this story. But according to a statement from Equifax, the hacker(s) downloaded the data in one fell swoop in mid-May 2017.

“The attacker accessed a storage table that contained historical credit card transaction related information,” the company said. “The dates that you provided in your e-mail appear to be the transaction dates. We have found no evidence during our investigation to indicate the presence of card harvesting malware, or access to the table before mid-May 2017.” Continue reading →


13
Sep 17

Adobe, Microsoft Plug Critical Security Holes

Adobe and Microsoft both on Tuesday released patches to plug critical security vulnerabilities in their products. Microsoft’s patch bundles fix close to 80 separate security problems in various versions of its Windows operating system and related software — including two vulnerabilities that already are being exploited in active attacks. Adobe’s new version of its Flash Player software tackles two flaws that malware or attackers could use to seize remote control over vulnerable computers with no help from users.

brokenwindows

Of the two zero-day flaws being fixed this week, the one in Microsoft’s ubiquitous .NET Framework (CVE-2017-8759) is perhaps the most concerning. Despite this flaw being actively exploited, it is somehow labeled by Microsoft as “important” rather than “critical” — the latter being the most dire designation.

More than two dozen flaws Microsoft remedied with this patch batch come with a “critical” warning, which means they could be exploited without any assistance from Windows users — save for perhaps browsing to a hacked or malicious Web site.

Regular readers here probably recall that I’ve often recommended installing .NET updates separately from any remaining Windows updates, mainly because in past instances in which I’ve experienced problems installing Windows updates, a .NET patch was usually involved.

For the most part, Microsoft now bundles all security updates together in one big patch ball for regular home users — no longer letting people choose which patches to install. One exception is patches for the .NET Framework, and I stand by my recommendation to install the patch roll-ups separately, reboot, and then tackle the .NET updates. Your mileage may vary. Continue reading →


12
Sep 17

Ayuda! (Help!) Equifax Has My Data!

Equifax last week disclosed a historic breach involving Social Security numbers and other sensitive data on as many as 143 million Americans. The company said the breach also impacted an undisclosed number of people in Canada and the United Kingdom. But the official list of victim countries may not yet be complete: According to information obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, Equifax can safely add Argentina — if not also other Latin American nations where it does business — to the list as well.

equihaxEquifax is one of the world’s three-largest consumer credit reporting bureaus, and a big part of what it does is maintain records on consumers that businesses can use to learn how risky it might be to loan someone money or to extend them new lines of credit. On the flip side, Equifax is somewhat answerable to those consumers, who have a legal right to dispute any information in their credit report which may be inaccurate.

Earlier today, this author was contacted by Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Hold Security LLC. Holden’s team of nearly 30 employees includes two native Argentinians who spent some time examining Equifax’s South American operations online after the company disclosed the breach involving its business units in North America.

It took almost no time for them to discover that an online portal designed to let Equifax employees in Argentina manage credit report disputes from consumers in that country was wide open, protected by perhaps the most easy-to-guess password combination ever: “admin/admin.”

We’ll speak about this Equifax Argentina employee portal — known as Veraz or “truthful” in Spanish — in the past tense because the credit bureau took the whole thing offline shortly after being contacted by KrebsOnSecurity this afternoon. The specific Veraz application being described in this post was dubbed Ayuda or “help” in Spanish on internal documentation.

The landing page for the internal administration page of Equifax’s Veraz portal. Click to enlarge.

Once inside the portal, the researchers found they could view the names of more than 100 Equifax employees in Argentina, as well as their employee ID and email address. The “list of users” page also featured a clickable button that anyone authenticated with the “admin/admin” username and password could use to add, modify or delete user accounts on the system. A search on “Equifax Veraz” at Linkedin indicates the unit currently has approximately 111 employees in Argentina.

A partial list of active and inactive Equifax employees in Argentina. This page also let anyone add or remove users at will, or modify existing user accounts.

Each employee record included a company username in plain text, and a corresponding password that was obfuscated by a series of dots.

The “edit users” page obscured the Veraz employee’s password, but the same password was exposed by sloppy coding on the Web page.

However, all one needed to do in order to view said password was to right-click on the employee’s profile page and select “view source,” a function that displays the raw HTML code which makes up the Web site. Buried in that HTML code was the employee’s password in plain text.

Continue reading →


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 →