Posts Tagged: Social Security Administration


7
Sep 16

The Limits of SMS for 2-Factor Authentication

A recent ping from a reader reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about the security limitations of using cell phone text messages for two-factor authentication online. The reader’s daughter had received a text message claiming to be from Google, warning that her Gmail account had been locked because someone in India had tried to access her account. The young woman was advised to expect a 6-digit verification code to be sent to her and to reply to the scammer’s message with that code.

2faMark Cobb, a computer technician in Reno, Nev., said had his daughter fallen for the ruse, her Gmail account would indeed have been completely compromised, and she really would have been locked out of her account because the crooks would have changed her password straight away.

Cobb’s daughter received the scam text message because she’d enabled 2-factor authentication on her Gmail account, selecting the option to have Google request that she enter a 6-digit code texted to her cell phone each time it detects a login from an unknown computer or location (in practice, the code is to be entered on the Gmail site, not sent in any kind of texted or emailed reply).

In this case, the thieves already had her password — most likely because she re-used it on some other site that got hacked. Cobb says he and his daughter believe her mobile number and password may have been exposed as part of the 2012 breach at LinkedIn.

In any case, the crooks were priming her to expect a code and to repeat it back to them because that code was the only thing standing in the way of their seizing control over her account. And they could control when Google would send the code to her phone because Google would do this as soon as they tried to log in using her username and password. Indeed, the timing aspect of this attack helps make it more believable to the target.

This is a fairly clever — if not novel — attack, and it’s one I’d wager would likely fool a decent percentage of users who have enabled text messages as a form of two-factor authentication. Certainly, text messaging is far from the strongest form of 2-factor authentication, but it is better than allowing a login with nothing more than a username and password, as this scam illustrates.

Nevertheless, text messaging codes to users isn’t the safest way to do two-factor authentication, even if some entities — like the U.S. Social Security Administration and Sony’s Playstation network — are just getting around to offering two-factor via SMS.

But don’t take my word for it. That’s according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which recently issued new proposed digital authentication guidelines urging organizations to favor other forms of two-factor — such as time-base one-time passwords generated by mobile apps — over text messaging. By the way, NIST is seeking feedback on these recommendations.

If anyone’s interested, Sophos’s Naked Security blog has a very readable breakdown of what’s new in the NIST guidelines. Among my favorite highlights is this broad directive: Favor the user.

“To begin with, make your password policies user friendly and put the burden on the verifier when possible,” Sophos’s Chester Wisniewski writes. “In other words, we need to stop asking users to do things that aren’t actually improving security.” Like expiring passwords and making users change them frequently, for example.

Okay, so the geeks-in-chief are saying it’s time to move away from texting as a form of 2-factor authentication. And, of course, they’re right, because text messages are a lot like email, in that it’s difficult to tell who really sent the message, and the message itself is sent in plain text — i.e. is readable by anyone who happens to be lurking in the middle.

But security experts and many technology enthusiasts have a tendency to think that everyone should see the world through the lens of security, whereas most mere mortal users just want to get on with their lives and are perfectly content to use the same password across multiple sites — regardless of how many times they’re told not to do so. Continue reading →


1
Aug 16

Social Security Administration Now Requires Two-Factor Authentication

The U.S. Social Security Administration announced last week that it will now require a cell phone number from all Americans who wish to manage their retirement benefits at ssa.gov. Unfortunately, the new security measure does little to prevent identity thieves from fraudulently creating online accounts to siphon benefits from Americans who haven’t yet created accounts for themselves.

ssasiteThe SSA said all new and existing ‘my Social Security’ account holders will need to provide a cell phone number. The agency said it will use the mobile numbers to send users an 8-digit code via text message that needs to be entered along with a username and password to log in to the site.

The SSA noted it was making the change to comply with an executive order for federal agencies to provide more secure authentication for their online services.

“People will not be able to access their personal my Social Security account if they do not have a cell phone or do not wish to provide the cell phone number,” the agency said. “The purpose of providing your cell phone number is that, each time you log in to your account with your username and password, we will send you a one-time security code you must also enter to log in successfully to your account. We expect to provide additional options in the future, dependent upon requirements of national guidelines currently being revised.”

Although the SSA’s policy change provides additional proof that the person signing in is the same individual who established multi-factor authentication in the the first place, it does not appear to provide any additional proof that the person creating an account at ssa.gov is who they say they are.

The SSA does offer other “extra security” options, such as the sending users a special code via the U.S. Mail that has to be entered on the agency’s site to complete the signup process. If you choose to enable extra security, the SSA will then ask you for:

  • The last eight digits of your Visa, MasterCard, or Discover credit card;
  • Information from your W2 tax form;
  • Information from a 1040 Schedule SE (self-employment) tax form; or
  • Your direct deposit amount, if you receive Social Security benefits.

Sadly, it is still relatively easy for thieves to create an account in the name of Americans who have not already created one for themselves. All one would need is the target’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, residential address, and phone number. This personal data can be bought for roughly $3-$4 from a variety of cybercrime shops online.

After that, the SSA relays four multiple-guess, so-called “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions from credit bureau Equifax. In practice, many of these KBA questions — such as previous address, loan amounts and dates — can be successfully enumerated with random guessing.  What’s more, very often the answers to these questions can be found by consulting free online services, such as Zillow and Facebook.

In September 2013, I warned that SSA and financial institutions were tracking a rise in cases wherein identity thieves register an account at the SSA’s portal using a retiree’s personal information and have the victim’s benefits diverted to prepaid debit cards that the crooks control. Unfortunately, because the SSA’s new security features are optional, they do little to block crooks from hijacking SSA benefit payments from retirees. Continue reading →


17
Aug 15

IRS: 330K Taxpayers Hit by ‘Get Transcript’ Scam

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disclosed today that identity thieves abused a feature on the agency’s Web site to pull sensitive data on more than 330,000 potential victims as part of a scheme to file fraudulent tax refund requests. The new figure is far larger than the number of Americans the IRS said were potentially impacted when it first acknowledged the vulnerability in May 2015 — two months after KrebsOnSecurity first raised alarms about the weakness.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 14.22.55In March 2015, I warned readers to Sign Up at IRS.gov Before Crooks Do It For You — which tracked the nightmarish story of Michael Kasper, one of millions of Americans victimized by tax refund fraud each year. When Kasper tried to get a transcript of the fraudulent return using the “Get Transcript” function on IRS.gov, he learned that someone had already registered through the IRS’s site using his Social Security number and an unknown email address.

Two months later, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen publicly acknowledged that crooks had used this feature to pull sensitive data on at least 110,000 taxpayers. Today, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported that the IRS is now revising those figures, estimating that an additional 220,000 potential victims had Social Security numbers and information from previous years’ tax filings stolen via the IRS Web site.

“In all, the thieves used personal information from about 610,000 taxpayers in an effort to access old tax returns,” the AP story notes. “They were successful in getting information from about 334,000 taxpayers.”

A BROKEN PROCESS

The IRS’s experience should tell consumers something about the effectiveness of the technology that the IRS, banks and countless other organizations use to screen requests for sensitive information.

As I reported in March, taxpayers who wished to obtain a copy of their most recent tax transcript had to provide the IRS with the following information: The applicant’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and filing status. After that data is successfully supplied, the IRS uses a service from credit bureau Equifax that asks four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” (KBA) questions. Anyone who succeeds in supplying the correct answers can see the applicant’s full tax transcript, including prior W2s, current W2s and more or less everything one would need to fraudulently file for a tax refund.

These KBA questions — which involve multiple choice, “out of wallet” questions such as previous address, loan amounts and dates — can be successfully enumerated with random guessing. But in practice it is far easier, as we can see from the fact that thieves were successfully able to navigate the multiple questions more than half of the times they tried.

If any readers here doubt how easy it is to buy personal data on just about anyone, check out the story I wrote in December 2014, wherein I was able to find the name, address, Social Security number, previous address and phone number on all current members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. This information is no longer secret (nor are the answers to KBA-based questions), and we are all made vulnerable to identity theft as long as institutions continue to rely on static information as authenticators.

Unfortunately, the IRS is not the only government agency whose reliance on static identifiers actually makes them complicit in facilitating identity theft against Americans. The same process described to obtain a tax transcript at irs.gov works to obtain a free credit report from annualcreditreport.com, a Web site mandated by Congress. In addition, Americans who have not already created an account at the Social Security Administration under their Social Security number are vulnerable to crooks hijacking SSA benefits now or in the future. For more on how crooks are siphoning Social Security benefits via government sites, check out this story.

THE IRS IS STILL VULNERABLE

The IRS has responded to the problem of tax ID theft partly by offering Identity Protection PINs (IP PINs) to affected taxpayers that must be supplied on the following year’s tax application before the IRS will accept the return. However, according to Kasper — the tax ID theft victim whose story first prompted my reporting on the Get Transcript abuse problem back in March — the IRS.gov Web site allows consumers who have lost their IP PINs to recover them, and incredibly that feature is still using the same authentication method relied upon by  the IRS’s flawed Get Transcript function.

Continue reading →


18
Sep 13

Crooks Hijack Retirement Funds Via SSA Portal

If you receive direct deposits from the Social Security Administration but haven’t yet registered at the agency’s new online account management portal, now would be a good time take care of that: The SSA and financial institutions say they are tracking a rise in cases wherein identity thieves register an account at the SSA’s portal using a retiree’s personal information and have that retiree’s benefits diverted to prepaid debit cards that the crooks control.

The SSA's "my Social Security" portal.

The SSA’s “my Social Security” portal.

Traditional SSA fraud involves identity thieves tricking the beneficiary’s bank into diverting the payments to another account, either through Social Security’s 800 number or through a financial institution, or through Treasury’s Direct Express program. The newer version of this fraud involves the abuse of the SSA’s my Social Security Web portal, which opened last year and allows individuals to create online accounts with the SSA to check their earnings and otherwise interact with the agency relative to their accounts.

Jonathan Lasher, assistant inspector general for external relations at the SSA’s Office of Inspector General, said that for several years the agency was receiving about 50 such allegations a day, though those numbers have begun to decline. But thieves didn’t go away: They just changed tactics. The trouble really began earlier this year, when the Treasury started requiring that almost all beneficiaries receive payments through direct deposit (though the SSA says paper checks are still available to some beneficiaries under limited circumstances).

At the same time, the SSA added the ability to change direct deposit information via their my Social Security Web portal. Shortly thereafter, the agency began receiving complaints that identity thieves were using the portal to hijack the benefits of individuals who had not yet created an account at the site. According to Lasher, as of August 23, 2013, the SSA has received 18,417 allegations of possibly fraudulent mySocialSecurity account activity. Lasher said while some of the complaints are the result of unsuccessful attempts to open an account fraudulently, some are indeed fraud.

“Social Security has already improved security over this online feature, and we continue to work with them to make additional improvements, while also investigating allegations we receive,” Lasher said. “While it’s an issue we’re taking very seriously, it’s important to keep in mind that about 62 million people receive some type of payment from SSA every month, so the likelihood of becoming a victim is very small, particularly if you’re careful about protecting your personal information.”

Because it’s possible to create just one my Social Security account per Social Security number, registering an account on the portal is one basic way that consumers can avoid becoming victims of this scam. Lasher said in the SSA’s systems, every record is tied to the SSN rather than a person’s name, since there are so many duplicate names.

“Of course, the one way to ensure that no one opens an account in your name is to open one yourself,” Lasher said. “Given the nature of other articles on your site, I think it’s important that I point out that there is no suggestion that SSA’s systems have been compromised; this is an identity theft scheme aimed at redirecting existing benefits, often to prepaid debit cards.”

Continue reading →