Posts Tagged: Consumers Union


9
May 18

Think You’ve Got Your Credit Freezes Covered? Think Again.

I spent a few days last week speaking at and attending a conference on responding to identity theft. The forum was held in Florida, one of the major epicenters for identity fraud complaints in United States. One gripe I heard from several presenters was that identity thieves increasingly are finding ways to open new mobile phone accounts in the names of people who have already frozen their credit files with the big-three credit bureaus. Here’s a look at what may be going on, and how you can protect yourself.

Carrie Kerskie is director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University in Naples. A big part of her job is helping local residents respond to identity theft and fraud complaints. Kerskie said she’s had multiple victims in her area recently complain of having cell phone accounts opened in their names even though they had already frozen their credit files at the big three credit bureausEquifax, Experian and Trans Union (as well as distant fourth bureau Innovis).

The freeze process is designed so that a creditor should not be able to see your credit file unless you unfreeze the account. A credit freeze blocks potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, making it far more difficult for identity thieves to apply for new lines of credit in your name.

But Kerskie’s investigation revealed that the mobile phone merchants weren’t asking any of the four credit bureaus mentioned above. Rather, the mobile providers were making credit queries with the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE), or nctue.com.

Source: nctue.com

“We’re finding that a lot of phone carriers — even some of the larger ones — are relying on NCTUE for credit checks,” Kerskie said. “It’s mainly phone carriers, but utilities, power, water, cable, any of those, they’re all starting to use this more.”

The NCTUE is a consumer reporting agency founded by AT&T in 1997 that maintains data such as payment and account history, reported by telecommunication, pay TV and utility service providers that are members of NCTUE.

Who are the NCTUE’s members? If you call the 800-number that NCTUE makes available to get a free copy of your NCTUE credit report, the option for “more information” about the organization says there are four “exchanges” that feed into the NCTUE’s system: the NCTUE itself; something called “Centralized Credit Check Systems“; the New York Data Exchange; and the California Utility Exchange.

According to a partner solutions page at Verizon, the New York Data Exchange is a not-for-profit entity created in 1996 that provides participating exchange carriers with access to local telecommunications service arrears (accounts that are unpaid) and final account information on residential end user accounts.

The NYDE is operated by Equifax Credit Information Services Inc. (yes, that Equifax). Verizon is one of many telecom providers that use the NYDE (and recall that AT&T was the founder of NCTUE).

The California Utility Exchange collects customer payment data from dozens of local utilities in the state, and also is operated by Equifax (Equifax Information Services LLC).

Google has virtually no useful information available about an entity called Centralized Credit Check Systems. It’s possible it no longer exists. If anyone finds differently, please leave a note in the comments section.

When I did some more digging on the NCTUE, I discovered…wait for it…Equifax also is the sole contractor that manages the NCTUE database. The entity’s site is also hosted out of Equifax’s servers. Equifax’s current contract to provide this service expires in 2020, according to a press release posted in 2015 by Equifax. Continue reading →


22
Mar 18

Survey: Americans Spent $1.4B on Credit Freeze Fees in Wake of Equifax Breach

Almost 20 percent of Americans froze their credit file with one or more of the big three credit bureaus in the wake of last year’s data breach at Equifax, costing consumers an estimated $1.4 billion, according to a new study. The findings come as lawmakers in Congress are debating legislation that would make credit freezes free in every state.

The figures, commissioned by small business loan provider Fundera and conducted by Wakefield Research, surveyed some 1,000 adults in the U.S. Respondents were asked to self-report how much they spent on the freezes; 32 percent said the freezes cost them $10 or less, but 38 percent said the total cost was $30 or more. The average cost to consumers who froze their credit after the Equifax breach was $23.

A credit freeze blocks potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, making it far more difficult for identity thieves to apply for new lines of credit in your name.

Depending on your state of residence, the cost of placing a freeze on your credit file can run between $3 and $10 per credit bureau, and in many states the bureaus also can charge fees for temporarily “thawing” and removing a freeze (according a list published by Consumers Union, residents of four states — Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina — do not need to pay to place, thaw or lift a freeze).

Image: Wakefield Research.

In a blog post published today, Fundera said the percentage of people who froze their credit in response to the Equifax breach incrementally decreases as people get older.

“Thirty-two percent of millennials, 16 percent of Generation Xers and 12 percent of baby boomers froze their credit,” Fundera explained. “This data is surprising considering that older generations have been working on building their credit for a longer period of time, and thus they have a more established record to protect.”

However, freeze fees could soon be a thing of the past. A provision included in a bill passed by the U.S. Senate on March 14 would require credit-reporting firms to let consumers place a freeze without paying (the measure is awaiting action in the House of Representatives).

But there may be a catch: According to CNBC, the congressional effort to require free freezes is part of a larger measure, S. 2155, which rolls back some banking regulations put in place after the financial crisis that rocked the U.S. economy a decade ago. Continue reading →


4
Oct 17

Fear Not: You, Too, Are a Cybercrime Victim!

Maybe you’ve been feeling left out because you weren’t among the lucky few hundred million or billion who had their personal information stolen in either the Equifax or Yahoo! breaches. Well buck up, camper: Both companies took steps to make you feel better today.

Yahoo! announced that, our bad!: It wasn’t just one billion users who had their account information filched in its record-breaking 2013 data breach. It was more like three billion (read: all) users. Meanwhile, big three credit bureau Equifax added 2.5 million more victims to its roster of 143 million Americans who had their Social Security numbers and other personal data stolen in a breach earlier this year. At the same time, Equifax’s erstwhile CEO informed Congress that the breach was the result of even more bone-headed security than was first disclosed.

To those still feeling left out by either company after this spate of bad news, I have only one thing to say (although I feel a bit like a broken record in repeating this): Assume you’re compromised, and take steps accordingly.

If readers are detecting a bit of sarcasm and cynicism in my tone here, it may be that I’m still wishing I’d done almost anything else today besides watching three hours worth of testimony from former Equifax CEO Richard Smith before lawmakers on a panel of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

While he is no longer the boss of Equifax, Smith gamely agreed to submit to several day’s worth of grilling from legislators in both houses of Congress this week. It was clear from the questions that lawmakers didn’t ask in Round One, however, that Smith was far more prepared for the first batch of questioning than they were, and that the entire ordeal would amount to only a gentle braising.

Nevertheless, Smith managed to paint an even more dismal picture than was already known about the company’s failures to secure the very data that makes up the core of its business. Helpfully, Smith clarified early on in the hearing that the company’s customers are in fact banks and other businesses — not consumers.

Smith told lawmakers that the breach stemmed from a combination of technological error and a human error, casting it as the kind of failure that could have happened to anyone. In reality, the company waited 4.5 months (after it discovered the breach in late July 2017) to fix a dangerous security flaw that it should have known was being exploited on Day One (~March 6 or 7, 2017).

“The human error involved the failure to apply a software patch to a dispute portal in March 2017,” Smith said. He declined to explain (and lawmakers inexplicably failed to ask) how 145.5 million Americans — nearly 60 percent of the adult population of the United States — could have had their information tied up in a dispute portal at Equifax. “The technological error involved a scanner which failed to detect a vulnerability on that particular portal.”

As noted in this Wired.com story, Smith admitted that the data compromised in the breach was not encrypted:

When asked by representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois about what data Equifax encrypts in its systems, Smith admitted that the data compromised in the customer-dispute portal was stored in plaintext and would have been easily readable by attackers. “We use many techniques to protect data—encryption, tokenization, masking, encryption in motion, encrypting at rest,” Smith said. “To be very specific, this data was not encrypted at rest.”

It’s unclear exactly what of the pilfered data resided in the portal versus other parts of Equifax’s system, but it turns out that also didn’t matter much, given Equifax’s attitude toward encryption overall. “OK, so this wasn’t [encrypted], but your core is?” Kinzinger asked. “Some, not all,” Smith replied. “There are varying levels of security techniques that the team deploys in different environments around the business.”

Smith also sought to justify the company’s historically poor breach response after it publicly disclosed the break-in on Sept. 7 — roughly 40 days after Equifax’s security team first became aware of the incident (on July 29). As many readers here are well familiar, KrebsOnSecurity likened that breach response to a dumpster fire — noting that it was perhaps the most haphazard and ill-conceived of any major data breach disclosure in history.

Smith artfully dodged questions of why the company waited so long to notify the public, and about the perception that Equifax sought to profit off of its own data breach. One lawmaker noted that Smith gave two public speeches in the second and third weeks of August in which he was quoted as saying that fraud was a “a huge opportunity for Equifax,” and that it was a “massive, growing business” for the company.

Smith interjected that he had “no indication” that consumer data was compromised at the time of the Aug. 11 speech. As for the Aug. 17 address, he said “we did not know how much data was compromised, what data was compromised.”

Follow-up questions from lawmakers on the panel revealed that Smith didn’t ask for a briefing about what was then allegedly only classified internally as “suspicious activity” until August 15, almost two weeks after the company hired outside cybersecurity experts to examine the issue.

Smith also maneuvered around questions about why Equifax chose to disclose the breach on the very day that Hurricane Irma was dominating front-page news with an imminent landfall on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

However, Smith did blame Irma in explaining why the company’s phone systems were simply unable to handle the call volume from U.S. consumers concerned about the Category Five data breach, saying that Irma took down two of Equifax’s largest call centers days after the breach disclosure. He said the company handled over 420 million consumer visits to the portal designed to help people figure out whether they were victimized in the breach, underscoring how so many American adults were forced to revisit the site again and again because it failed to give people consistent answers about whether they were affected. Continue reading →


19
Mar 14

Are Credit Monitoring Services Worth It?

In the wake of one data breach after another, millions of Americans each year are offered credit monitoring services that promise to shield them from identity thieves. Although these services can help true victims step out from beneath the shadow of ID theft, the sad truth is that most services offer little in the way of real preventative protection against the fastest-growing crime in America.

Experian 'protection' offered for Target victims.

Experian ‘protection’ offered for Target victims.

Having purchased credit monitoring/protection services for the past 24 months — and having been the target of multiple identity theft attempts — I feel somewhat qualified to share my experience with readers. The biggest takeaway for me has been that although these services may alert you when someone opens or attempts to open a new line of credit in your name, most will do little — if anything — to block that activity. My take: If you’re being offered free monitoring, it probably can’t hurt to sign up, but you shouldn’t expect the service to stop identity thieves from ruining your credit.

Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst at Gartner Inc., said offering credit monitoring has become the de facto public response for companies that experience a data breach, whether or not that breach resulted in the loss of personal information that could lead to actual identity theft (as opposed to mere credit card fraud).

“These are basically PR vehicles for most of the breached companies who offer credit report monitoring to potentially compromised consumers,” Litan said. “Breached companies such as Target like to offer it as a good PR move even though it does absolutely nothing to compensate for the fact that a criminal stole credit card mag stripe account data. My advice for consumers has been – sure get it for free from one of the companies where your data has been compromised (and surely these days there is at least one).  But don’t expect it to help much – by the time you get the alert, it’s too late, the damage has been done.  It just shortens the time to detection so you may have a slightly improved chance of cleaning up the damage faster.  And you can get your credit reports three times a year from the government website for free which is almost just as good so why pay for it ever?”

FRAUD ALERT BREAKDOWN

Normally, I place fraud alerts on my credit file every 90 days, as allowed by law. This step is supposed to require potential creditors to contact you and obtain your permission before opening new lines of credit in your name. You merely need to file a fraud alert (also called a “security alert”) with one of the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian or Trans Union). Whichever one you file with is required by law to alert the other two bureaus as well.

Most consumers don’t know this (few consumers know the names of the three main credit bureaus), but there is actually a fourth credit bureau that you should alert: Innovis. This bureau follows the same rules as the big three, and you may file a fraud alert with them at this link.

Fraud alerts last 90 days, and you can renew them as often as you like (a recurring calendar entry can help with this task); consumers who can demonstrate that they are victims or are likely to be victims of identity theft can apply for a long-term fraud alert that lasts up to 7 years (a police report and other documentation may be required).

Continue reading →