In 2017, KrebsOnSecurity showed how easy it is for identity thieves to undo a consumer’s request to freeze their credit file at Experian, one of the big three consumer credit bureaus in the United States. Last week, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a reader who had his freeze thawed without authorization through Experian’s website, and it reminded me of how truly broken authentication and security remains in the credit bureau space.
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.
Dune Thomas is a software engineer from Sacramento, Calif. who put a freeze on his credit files last year at Experian, Equifax and TransUnion after thieves tried to open multiple new payment accounts in his name using an address in Washington state that was tied to a vacant home for sale.
But the crooks were persistent: Earlier this month, someone unfroze Thomas’ account at Experian and promptly applied for new lines of credit in his name, again using the same Washington street address. Thomas said he only learned about the activity because he’d taken advantage of a free credit monitoring service offered by his credit card company.
Thomas said after several days on the phone with Experian, a company representative acknowledged that someone had used the “request your PIN” feature on Experian’s site to obtain his PIN and then unfreeze his file.
Thomas said he and a friend both walked through the process of recovering their freeze PIN at Experian, and were surprised to find that just one of the five multiple-guess questions they were asked after entering their address, Social Security Number and date of birth had anything to do with information only the credit bureau might know.
KrebsOnSecurity stepped through the same process and found similar results. The first question asked about a new mortgage I supposedly took out in 2019 (I didn’t), and the answer was none of the above. The answer to the second question also was none of the above.
The next two questions were useless for authentication purposes because they’d already been asked and answered; one was “which of the following is the last four digits of your SSN,” and the other was “I was born within a year or on the year of the date below.” Only one question mattered and was relevant to my credit history (it concerned the last four digits of a checking account number).
The best part about this lax authentication process is that one can enter any email address to retrieve the PIN — it doesn’t need to be tied to an existing account at Experian. Also, when the PIN is retrieved, Experian doesn’t bother notifying any other email addresses already on file for that consumer.
Finally, your basic consumer (read: free) account at Experian does not give users the option to enable any sort of multi-factor authentication that might help stymie some of these PIN retrieval attacks on credit freezes.
Unless, that is, you subscribe to Experian’s heavily-marketed and confusingly-worded “CreditLock” service, which charges between $14.99 and $24.99 a month for the ability to “lock and unlock your file easily and quickly, without delaying the application process.” CreditLock users can both enable multifactor authentication and get alerts when someone tries to access their account.
Thomas said he’s furious that Experian only provides added account security for consumers who pay for monthly plans.
“Experian had the ability to give people way better protection through added authentication of some kind, but instead they don’t because they can charge $25 a month for it,” Thomas said. “They’re allowing this huge security gap so they can make a profit. And this has been going on for at least four years.”
Experian has not yet responded to requests for comment.
When a consumer with a freeze logs in to Experian’s site, they are immediately directed to a message for one of Experian’s paid services, such as its CreditLock service. The message I saw upon logging in confirmed that while I had a freeze in place with Experian, my current “protection level” was “low” because my credit file was unlocked.
“When your file is unlocked, you’re more vulnerable to identity theft and fraud,” Experian warns, untruthfully. “You won’t see alerts if someone tries to access your file. Banks can check your file if you apply for credit or loans. Utility and service providers can see your credit file.”
Experian says my security is low because while I have a freeze in place, I haven’t bought into their questionable “lock service.”
Sounds scary, right? The thing is — except for the part about not seeing alerts — none of the above statement is true if you already have a freeze on your file. A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. Continue reading