In October 2013, KrebsOnSecurity published an exclusive story detailing how a Vietnamese man running an online identity theft service bought personal and financial records on Americans directly from a company owned by Experian, one of the three major U.S. credit bureaus. Today’s story looks deeper at the damage wrought in this colossal misstep by one of the nation’s largest data brokers.
Last week, Hieu Minh Ngo, a 24-year-old Vietnamese national, pleaded guilty to running an identity theft service out of his home in Vietnam. Ngo was arrested last year in Guam by U.S. Secret Service agents after he was lured into visiting the U.S. territory to consummate a business deal with a man he believed could deliver huge volumes of consumers’ personal and financial data for resale.
But according to prosecutors, Ngo had already struck deals with one of the world’s biggest data brokers: Experian. Court records just released last week show that Ngo tricked an Experian subsidiary into giving him direct access to personal and financial data on more than 200 million Americans.
HIEU KNOWS YOUR SECRETS?
As I reported last year, the data was not obtained directly from Experian, but rather via Columbus, Ohio-based US Info Search. US Info Search had a contractual agreement with a California company named Court Ventures, whereby customers of Court Ventures had access to the US Info Search data as well as Court Ventures’ data, and vice versa.
Posing as a private investigator operating out of Singapore, Ngo contracted with Court Ventures, paying for his access to consumer records via regular cash wire transfers from a bank in Singapore. Through that contract, Ngo was able to make available to his clients access to the US Info Search database containing Social Security, date of birth and other records on more than 200 million Americans.
Experian came into the picture in March 2012, when it purchased Court Ventures (along with all of its customers — including Mr. Ngo). For almost ten months after Experian completed that acquisition, Ngo continued siphoning consumer data and making his wire transfers.
Until last week, the government had shared few details about the scope and the size of the data breach, such as how many Americans may have been targeted by thieves using Ngo’s identity theft service. According to a transcript of Ngo’s guilty plea proceedings obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, Ngo’s ID theft business attracted more than 1,300 customers who paid at least $1.9 million between 2007 and Feb. 2013 to look up Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, previous addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other sensitive data.
The government alleges that the service’s customers used the information for a variety of fraud schemes, including filing fraudulent tax returns on Americans, and opening new lines of credit and racking up huge bills in the names of unsuspecting victims. The transcript shows government investigators found that over an 18-month period ending Feb. 2013, Ngo’s customers made approximately 3.1 million queries on Americans.