Posts Tagged: Court Ventures


26
Aug 20

Confessions of an ID Theft Kingpin, Part I

At the height of his cybercriminal career, the hacker known as “Hieupc” was earning $125,000 a month running a bustling identity theft service that siphoned consumer dossiers from some of the world’s top data brokers. That is, until his greed and ambition played straight into an elaborate snare set by the U.S. Secret Service. Now, after more than seven years in prison Hieupc is back in his home country and hoping to convince other would-be cybercrooks to use their computer skills for good.

Hieu Minh Ngo, in his teens.

For several years beginning around 2010, a lone teenager in Vietnam named Hieu Minh Ngo ran one of the Internet’s most profitable and popular services for selling “fullz,” stolen identity records that included a consumer’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and email and physical address.

Ngo got his treasure trove of consumer data by hacking and social engineering his way into a string of major data brokers. By the time the Secret Service caught up with him in 2013, he’d made over $3 million selling fullz data to identity thieves and organized crime rings operating throughout the United States.

Matt O’Neill is the Secret Service agent who in February 2013 successfully executed a scheme to lure Ngo out of Vietnam and into Guam, where the young hacker was arrested and sent to the mainland U.S. to face prosecution. O’Neill now heads the agency’s Global Investigative Operations Center, which supports investigations into transnational organized criminal groups.

O’Neill said he opened the investigation into Ngo’s identity theft business after reading about it in a 2011 KrebsOnSecurity story, “How Much is Your Identity Worth?” According to O’Neill, what’s remarkable about Ngo is that to this day his name is virtually unknown among the pantheon of infamous convicted cybercriminals, the majority of whom were busted for trafficking in huge quantities of stolen credit cards.

Ngo’s businesses enabled an entire generation of cybercriminals to commit an estimated $1 billion worth of new account fraud, and to sully the credit histories of countless Americans in the process.

“I don’t know of any other cybercriminal who has caused more material financial harm to more Americans than Ngo,” O’Neill told KrebsOnSecurity. “He was selling the personal information on more than 200 million Americans and allowing anyone to buy it for pennies apiece.”

Freshly released from the U.S. prison system and deported back to Vietnam, Ngo is currently finishing up a mandatory three-week COVID-19 quarantine at a government-run facility. He contacted KrebsOnSecurity from inside this facility with the stated aim of telling his little-known story, and to warn others away from following in his footsteps.

BEGINNINGS

Ten years ago, then 19-year-old hacker Ngo was a regular on the Vietnamese-language computer hacking forums. Ngo says he came from a middle-class family that owned an electronics store, and that his parents bought him a computer when he was around 12 years old. From then on out, he was hooked.

In his late teens, he traveled to New Zealand to study English at a university there. By that time, he was already an administrator of several dark web hacker forums, and between his studies he discovered a vulnerability in the school’s network that exposed payment card data.

“I did contact the IT technician there to fix it, but nobody cared so I hacked the whole system,” Ngo recalled. “Then I used the same vulnerability to hack other websites. I was stealing lots of credit cards.”

Ngo said he decided to use the card data to buy concert and event tickets from Ticketmaster, and then sell the tickets at a New Zealand auction site called TradeMe. The university later learned of the intrusion and Ngo’s role in it, and the Auckland police got involved. Ngo’s travel visa was not renewed after his first semester ended, and in retribution he attacked the university’s site, shutting it down for at least two days.

Ngo said he started taking classes again back in Vietnam, but soon found he was spending most of his time on cybercrime forums.

“I went from hacking for fun to hacking for profits when I saw how easy it was to make money stealing customer databases,” Ngo said. “I was hanging out with some of my friends from the underground forums and we talked about planning a new criminal activity.”

“My friends said doing credit cards and bank information is very dangerous, so I started thinking about selling identities,” Ngo continued. “At first I thought well, it’s just information, maybe it’s not that bad because it’s not related to bank accounts directly. But I was wrong, and the money I started making very fast just blinded me to a lot of things.”

MICROBILT

His first big target was a consumer credit reporting company in New Jersey called MicroBilt.

“I was hacking into their platform and stealing their customer database so I could use their customer logins to access their [consumer] databases,” Ngo said. “I was in their systems for almost a year without them knowing.”

Very soon after gaining access to MicroBilt, Ngo says, he stood up Superget[.]info, a website that advertised the sale of individual consumer records. Ngo said initially his service was quite manual, requiring customers to request specific states or consumers they wanted information on, and he would conduct the lookups by hand.

Ngo’s former identity theft service, superget[.]info

“I was trying to get more records at once, but the speed of our Internet in Vietnam then was very slow,” Ngo recalled. “I couldn’t download it because the database was so huge. So I just manually search for whoever need identities.”

But Ngo would soon work out how to use more powerful servers in the United States to automate the collection of larger amounts of consumer data from MicroBilt’s systems, and from other data brokers. As I wrote of Ngo’s service back in November 2011:

“Superget lets users search for specific individuals by name, city, and state. Each “credit” costs USD$1, and a successful hit on a Social Security number or date of birth costs 3 credits each. The more credits you buy, the cheaper the searches are per credit: Six credits cost $4.99; 35 credits cost $20.99, and $100.99 buys you 230 credits. Customers with special needs can avail themselves of the “reseller plan,” which promises 1,500 credits for $500.99, and 3,500 credits for $1000.99.

“Our Databases are updated EVERY DAY,” the site’s owner enthuses. “About 99% nearly 100% US people could be found, more than any sites on the internet now.”

Ngo’s intrusion into MicroBilt eventually was detected, and the company kicked him out of their systems. But he says he got back in using another vulnerability.

“I was hacking them and it was back and forth for months,” Ngo said. “They would discover [my accounts] and fix it, and I would discover a new vulnerability and hack them again.”

COURT (AD)VENTURES, AND EXPERIAN

This game of cat and mouse continued until Ngo found a much more reliable and stable source of consumer data: A U.S. based company called Court Ventures, which aggregated public records from court documents. Ngo wasn’t interested in the data collected by Court Ventures, but rather in its data sharing agreement with a third-party data broker called U.S. Info Search, which had access to far more sensitive consumer records.

Using forged documents and more than a few lies, Ngo was able to convince Court Ventures that he was a private investigator based in the United States.

“At first [when] I sign up they asked for some documents to verify,” Ngo said. “So I just used some skill about social engineering and went through the security check.”

Then, in March 2012, something even more remarkable happened: Court Ventures was purchased by Experian, one of the big three major consumer credit bureaus in the United States. And for nine months after the acquisition, Ngo was able to maintain his access.

“After that, the database was under control by Experian,” he said. “I was paying Experian good money, thousands of dollars a month.”

Whether anyone at Experian ever performed due diligence on the accounts grandfathered in from Court Ventures is unclear. But it wouldn’t have taken a rocket surgeon to figure out that this particular customer was up to something fishy.

For one thing, Ngo paid the monthly invoices for his customers’ data requests using wire transfers from a multitude of banks around the world, but mostly from new accounts at financial institutions in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

O’Neill said Ngo’s identity theft website generated tens of thousands of queries each month. For example, the first invoice Court Ventures sent Ngo in December 2010 was for 60,000 queries. By the time Experian acquired the company, Ngo’s service had attracted more than 1,400 regular customers, and was averaging 160,000 monthly queries.

More importantly, Ngo’s profit margins were enormous.

“His service was quite the racket,” he said. “Court Ventures charged him 14 cents per lookup, but he charged his customers about $1 for each query.”

By this time, O’Neill and his fellow Secret Service agents had served dozens of subpoenas tied to Ngo’s identity theft service, including one that granted them access to the email account he used to communicate with customers and administer his site. The agents discovered several emails from Ngo instructing an accomplice to pay Experian using wire transfers from different Asian banks. Continue reading →


8
Oct 15

At Experian, Security Attrition Amid Acquisitions

T-Mobile disclosed last week that some 15 million customers had their Social Security numbers and other personal data stolen thanks to a breach at Experian, the largest of the big American consumer credit bureaus. But this actually wasn’t the first time that a hacking incident at Experian exposed sensitive T-Mobile customer data, and that previous breach may hold important clues about what went wrong more recently.

Experian's offices in Nottingham, UK. Source: Wikipedia.

Experian’s offices in Nottingham, UK. Source: Wikipedia.

On Dec. 30, 2013, T-Mobile said it notified a “relatively small” number of customers that unauthorized access to a file stored on servers owned by Experian had exposed Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers. The mobile provider identified the breached vendor as Decisioning Solutions, an identity-proofing and authentication company that was acquired by Experian in April 2013. We’ll revisit this acquisition in a few moments.

Over the past week, KrebsOnSecurity has interviewed a half-dozen security experts who said they recently left Experian to find more rewarding and less frustrating work at other corporations. Nearly all described Experian as a company fixated on acquiring companies in the data broker and analytics technology space, even as it has stymied efforts to improve security and accountability at the Costa Mesa, Calif. based firm.

Jasun Tate worked for a year until April 2014 as a chief information security officer delegate and risk consultant at Experian’s government services and e-marketing business units. Tate said he and several of his colleagues left last year after repeatedly running into problems getting buy-in or follow-up support for major projects to beef up security around Experian’s growing stable of companies handling sensitive consumer and government data.

“What the board of directors at Experian wanted security-wise and the security capabilities on the ground were two completely different things,” Tate said. “Senior leadership there said they were pursuing a very aggressive growth-by-acquisition campaign. The acquisition team would have a very strict protocol on how they assess whether a business may be viable to buy, but the subsequent integration of the business into our core security architecture was just a black box of magic in terms of how it was to be implemented. And I’m not saying successful magic at all.”

Another recent former security employee at Experian who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity said it was clear that the company’s board was not well-informed about the true state of security within the company’s various business units.

“When I was there, the board was very big on security and wanting to invest in it and make sure we were doing what we needed to do in order to avoid situations just like this,” the source said. “In my opinion, there’s no way the board was told the whole story, because if they had been then things wouldn’t be where they are are now. We wouldn’t be talking about this. Some things had to have been hidden or spun in a way to look positive somehow.”

BLACK BOX MAGIC

Not long after it acquired the above-mentioned Decisioning Solutions in April 2013, Experian folded the company into its Decision Analytics platform — a unit which provides credit and noncredit data, customer analytics and fraud detection to lenders, cable and satellite companies, telecommunications firms, third-party debt collectors, utilities and to state and federal government entities.

Within hours of the latest T-Mobile breach news hitting the wires, KrebsOnSecurity was contacted by an anonymous source who sent this author a Web link that, when clicked, opened up a support ticket within that Decision Analytics platform in the United Kingdom — with absolutely no authentication needed. That support ticket I viewed appears to have been filed by someone in an office cube at Experian’s data center in Costa Rica who was requesting hardware support for a component of the company’s Global Technology Services division.

Countless internal support requests for access to Experian's Decision Analytics credit information platform were exposed to the Internet without authentication until earlier this week.

Countless internal support requests for access to Experian’s Decision Analytics credit information platform were exposed to the Internet without authentication until earlier this week.

That particular support ticket was relatively uninteresting, but according to my source anyone could view countless other support tickets filed via the support portal for Experian’s Decision Analytics platform.

The same source demonstrated how modifying just one or two numbers at the tail end of that link revealed requests for access to networked file shares from across a range of Experian’s business units. The requests included specific names of network shares, usernames, userIDs, and LanIDs, as well as email addresses, phone numbers of Experian personnel requesting and approving the changes.

Countless internal support requests for access to Experian's Decision Analytics credit information platform were exposed to the Internet without authentication until earlier this week.

Countless internal support requests for access to Experian’s Decision Analytics credit information platform were exposed to the Internet without authentication until earlier this week.

The support site also apparently allowed anyone to file support tickets, potentially making it easy for clever attackers who’d studied the exposed support tickets to fabricate a request for access to Experian resources or accounts on the system.

In addition, experts I spoke with who examined the portal said the support site allowed anyone to upload arbitrary file attachments of virtually any file type. Those experts said such file upload capabilities are notoriously easy for attackers to use to inject malicious files into databases and other computing environments, and that having such capability out in the open without at least first requiring users to supply valid username and password credentials is asking for trouble.

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from Experian to find out if it knew that its Decision Analytics support portal allowed anyone to view the tickets within. The company said in a statement that it had disabled the portal in response to what appeared to be unauthorized access to it and had notified law enforcement.

“We take any unauthorized access to our systems very seriously, and when we detected the unauthorized activities, we shut down the website and notified law enforcement,” the company said in a statement. “Our credit database and core infrastructure were not impacted – nor could they be accessed through this website.  This site was a legacy version of a service to enable clients and internal users to create and log tickets for issues they may have and we had already deployed its replacement solution.” Continue reading →


21
Jul 15

Experian Hit With Class Action Over ID Theft Service

Big-three credit bureau Experian is the target of a class-action lawsuit just filed in California. The suit alleges that Experian negligently violated consumer protection laws when it failed to detect for nearly 10 months that a customer of its data broker subsidiary was a scammer who ran a criminal service that resold consumer data to identity thieves.

experianThe lawsuit comes just days after a judge in New Hampshire handed down a 13-year jail sentence against Hieu Minh Ngo, a 25-year-old Vietnamese man who ran an ID theft service variously named Superget.info and findget.me.

Ngo admitted hacking into or otherwise illegally gaining access to databases belonging to some of the world’s largest data brokers, including a Court Ventures — a company that Experian acquired in 2012. He got access to some 200 million consumer records by posing as a private investigator based in the United States, and for nearly ten months after Experian acquired Court Ventures, Ngo continued paying for his customers’ data searches via cash wire transfers from a bank in Singapore.

Ngo’s service sold access to “fullz,” the slang term for packages of consumer data that could be used to commit identity theft in victims’ names. The government says Ngo made nearly $2 million from his scheme. According to the Justice Department, the IRS has confirmed that 13,673 U.S. citizens, whose stolen personal information was sold on Ngo’s websites, have been victimized through the filing of $65 million in fraudulent individual income tax returns.

The class action lawsuit, filed July 17, 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, seeks statutory damages for Experian’s alleged violations of, among other statutes, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The plaintiffs also want the court to force Experian to notify all consumers affected by Ngo’s service; to provide them free credit monitoring services; to disgorge all profits made from Ngo’s service; and to establish a fund (in an amount to be determined) to which victims can apply for reimbursement of the time and out-of-pocket expenses they incurred to remediate the identity theft and fraud caused by customers of Ngo’s ID theft service. Continue reading →


15
Jul 15

ID Theft Service Proprietor Gets 13 Years

A Vietnamese man who ran an online identity theft service that sold access to Social Security numbers and other personal information on more than 200 million Americans has been sentenced to 13 years in a U.S. prison.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo was sentenced to 13 years in prison for running an identity theft service.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo was sentenced to 13 years in prison for running an identity theft service.

Hieu Minh Ngo, 25, ran an ID theft service variously named Superget.info and findget.me. Ngo admitted hacking into or otherwise illegally gaining access to databases belonging to some of the world’s largest data brokers, including a Court Ventures, a subsidiary of the major consumer credit bureau Experian.

Ngo’s service sold access to “fullz,” the slang term for packages of consumer data that could be used to commit identity theft in victims’ names. The government says Ngo made nearly $2 million from his scheme.

The totality of damage caused by his more than 1,300 customers is unknown, but it is clear that Ngo’s service was quite popular among ID thieves involved in filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to the Justice Department, the IRS has confirmed that 13,673 U.S. citizens, whose stolen PII was sold on Ngo’s websites, have been victimized through the filing of $65 million in fraudulent individual income tax returns. Continue reading →


1
Oct 14

ID Theft Service Customer Gets 27 Months

A Florida man was sentenced today to 27 months in prison for trying to purchase Social Security numbers and other data from an identity theft service that pulled consumer records from a subsidiary of credit bureau Experian.

Ngo's ID theft service superget.info

Ngo’s ID theft service superget.info

Derric Theoc, 36, pleaded guilty to attempting to purchase Social Security and bank account records on more than 100 Americans with the intent to open credit card accounts and file fraudulent tax returns in the victims’ names. According to prosecutors, Theoc had purchased numerous records from Superget.info, a now-defunct online identity theft service that was run by Vietnamese individual named Hieu Minh Ngo.

Ngo was arrested in 2012 by U.S. Secret Service agents, after he was lured to Guam by an undercover investigator who’d proposed a business deal to expand Ngo’s personal consumer data stores. As part of a guilty plea, Ngo later admitted that he’d obtained personal information on consumers from a variety of data broker companies by posing as a private investigator based in the United States.

Among the biggest brokers that Ngo bought from was Court Ventures, a company that was acquired in March 2012 by Experian — one of the three major credit bureaus. Court records show that for almost ten months after Experian completed that acquisition, Ngo continued siphoning consumer data and paying for the information via cash wire transfers from a bank in Singapore.

After Ngo’s arrest, Secret Service investigators in early 2013 quietly assumed control over his identity theft service in the hopes of identifying and arresting at least some of his more than 1,000 paying customers.

Theoc is just the latest in a string of identity thieves to have been rounded up for attempting to purchase additional records after the service came under the government’s control. In May, I wrote about another big beneficiary of Ngo’s service: An identity theft ring of at least 32 people who were arrested last year for allegedly using the information to steal millions from more than 1,000 victims across the country. Continue reading →


5
Apr 14

Fact-Checking Experian’s Talking Points

In the wake of long-overdue media attention to revelations that a business unit of credit bureau Experian sold consumer personal data directly to an online service that catered to identity thieves, Experian is rightfully trying to explain its side of the story by releasing a series of talking points. This blog post is an attempt to add more context and fact-checking to those talking points.

Experian has posted several articles on its Web properties that lament the existence of “inaccurate information about Experian circulating in news outlets and other Web sites.”

“It’s no surprise that cybercrime and data breaches are hot topics for media and bloggers these days,” wrote Gerry Tschopp, senior vice president of public affairs at Experian. “Unfortunately, because of all the attention paid to these topics, we’ve seen some inaccurate information about Experian circulating in news outlets and other Web sites. I want to take a moment to clarify the facts and events.”

I’ve read this clarification closely, and it seems that Experian’s latest talking points deserve some clarification and fact-checking of their own. Below are Experian’s assertions of the facts (in bold), followed by some supplemental information glossed over by said statements of fact.

-No Experian database was accessed. The data in question have at all relevant times been owned and maintained, not by Experian, but by a company called US Info Search.

As all of my stories on this incident have explicitly stated, the government has said 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. Experian came into the picture in March 2012, when it purchased Court Ventures (along with all of its customers — including the proprietor of the identity theft service).

For its part, US Info Search says Experian’s explanation of the events is based on false statements and misrepresentations, and that the proprietor of the ID theft service paid Experian for his access using large cash payments sent to Experian via wire from Singapore.

“Experian provided access to records via a gateway that used multiple data sources and the suspect never had access to our service,” US Info Search CEO Marc Martin said in a written statement. “We, like many others, provide data to Experian, who in turn sold data to customers they approved and monitored. Our agreement with Court Ventures and subsequently Experian was to provide information that was being used for identity verification and fraud prevention.

-Further, Experian’s only involvement was that it purchased the assets of a company, Court Ventures, that provided access to US Info Search’s data to Court Ventures’ customers. Under that contract, customers of Court Ventures, including the criminal in this case, could access US Info Search’s data. This was not an Experian database, and specifically, this was not a credit database.

Experian has a duty to conduct “due diligence” on companies it wishes to acquire, because it knows that in purchasing a company it will acquire all of the company’s assets — including whatever debts, liabilities or poor decisions the previous owners may have incurred that end up creating problems down the road. Experian wants to blame everyone else, but by its own admission, Experian didn’t conduct proper due diligence on Court Ventures before acquiring the company. Addressing a U.S. Senate committee last December, Experian’s senior vice president of government policy, Tony Hadley, allowed that “during the due diligence process, we didn’t have total access to all the information we needed in order to completely vet that, and by the time we learned of the malfeasance nine months had expired, and the Secret Service came to us and told us of the incident. We were a victim, and scammed by this person.”

Also, if it wasn’t clear by now, Experian’s PR mantra on this crisis has been that “no Experian database was accessed,” in this fraud. But this mantra draws attention away from the real victim: Consumers whose information was sold by Experian’s company directly to an identity theft service. A critical question to ask to this line of thinking is: Why does it matter whose database it is, if it contains personal info and Experian profited from its sale?  Continue reading →


10
Mar 14

Experian Lapse Allowed ID Theft Service Access to 200 Million Consumer Records

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.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo pleaded guilty last week to running the ID theft service Superget.info.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo pleaded guilty last week to running the ID theft service Superget.info.

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.

Continue reading →


20
Oct 13

Experian Sold Consumer Data to ID Theft Service

An identity theft service that sold Social Security and drivers license numbers — as well as bank account and credit card data on millions of Americans — purchased much of its data from Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, according to a lengthy investigation by KrebsOnSecurity.

superget.info home page

superget.info home page

In November 2011, this publication ran a story about an underground service called Superget.info, a fraudster-friendly site that marketed the ability to look up full Social Security numbers, birthdays, drivers license records and financial information on millions of Americans. Registration was free, and accounts were funded via WebMoney and other virtual currencies that are popular in the cybercriminal underground.

Each SSN search on Superget.info returned consumer records that were marked with a set of varying and mysterious two- and three-letter “sourceid:” identifiers, including “TH,” “MV,” and “NCO,” among others. I asked readers who may have a clue about the meaning or source of those abbreviations to contact me. In the weeks following that post, I heard from many readers who had guesses and ideas, but none who seemed to have conclusive information.

That changed in the past week. An individual who read a story about the operators of a similar ID theft service online having broken into the networks of LexisNexis and other major data brokers wrote to say that he’d gone back and reviewed my previous stories on this topic, and that he’d identified the source of the data being resold by Superget.info. The reader said the abbreviations matched data sets produced by Columbus, Ohio-based USInfoSearch.com.

Contacted about the reader’s claim, U.S. Info Search CEO Marc Martin said the data sold by the ID theft service was not obtained directly through his company, but rather via Court Ventures, a third-party company with which US Info Search had previously struck an information sharing agreement. Martin said that several years ago US Info Search and CourtVentures each agreed to grant the other company complete access to its stores of information on US consumers.

Founded in 2001, Court Ventures described itself as a firm that “aggregates, repackages and distributes public record data, obtained from over 1,400 state and county sources.” Cached, historic copies of courtventures.com are available through archive.org.

THE ROLE OF EXPERIAN

In March 2012, Court Ventures was purchased by Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Experian, one of the three major consumer credit bureaus. According to Martin, the proprietors of Superget.info had gained access to Experian’s databases by posing as a U.S.-based private investigator. In reality, Martin said, the individuals apparently responsible for running Superget.info were based in Vietnam.

Martin said he first learned of the ID theft service after hearing from a U.S. Secret Service agent who called and said the law enforcement agency was investigating Experian and had obtained a grand jury subpoena against the company.

The "sourceid" abbreviations pointed toward Court Ventures.

The “sourceid” abbreviations pointed toward Court Ventures.

While the private investigator ruse may have gotten the fraudsters past Experian and/or CourtVentures’ screening process, according to Martin there were other signs that should have alerted Experian to potential fraud associated with the account. For example, Martin said the Secret Service told him that the alleged proprietor of Superget.info had paid Experian for his monthly data access charges using wire transfers sent from Singapore.

“The issue in my mind was the fact that this went on for almost a year after Experian did their due diligence and purchased” Court Ventures, Martin said. “Why didn’t they question cash wires coming in every month? Experian portrays themselves as the databreach experts, and they sell identity theft protection services. How this could go on without them detecting it I don’t know. Our agreement with them was that our information was to be used for fraud prevention and ID verification, and was only to be sold to licensed and credentialed U.S. businesses, not to someone overseas.”

Experian declined multiple requests for an interview. But in a written statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Experian acknowledged the broad outlines of Martin’s story and said it had worked with the Secret Service to bring a Vietnamese national to justice in connection with the online ID theft service. Their statement is as follows:

“Experian acquired Court Ventures in March, 2012 because of its national public records database. After the acquisition, the US Secret Service notified Experian that Court Ventures had been and was continuing to resell data from US Info Search to a third party possibly engaged in illegal activity. Following notice by the US Secret Service, Experian discontinued reselling US Info Search data and worked closely and in full cooperation with law enforcement to bring Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo, the alleged perpetrator, to justice.  Experian’s credit files were not accessed.  Because of the ongoing federal investigation, we are not free to say anything further at this time.”

Continue reading →