Posts Tagged: Tony Hadley

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 and

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 →

Dec 14

Toward a Breach Canary for Data Brokers

When a retailer’s credit card systems get breached by hackers, banks usually can tell which merchant got hacked soon after those card accounts become available for purchase at underground cybercrime shops. But when companies that collect and sell sensitive consumer data get hacked or are tricked into giving that information to identity thieves, there is no easy way to tell who leaked the data when it ends up for sale in the black market. In this post, we’ll examine one idea to hold consumer data brokers more accountable.

breachcanarySome of the biggest retail credit card breaches of the past year — including the break-ins at Target and Home Depot — were detected by banks well before news of the incidents went public. When cards stolen from those merchants go up for sale on underground cybercrime shops, the banks often can figure out which merchant got hacked by acquiring a handful of their cards and analyzing the customer purchase history of those accounts. The merchant that is common to all stolen cards across a given transaction period is usually the breached retailer.

Sadly, this process of working backwards from stolen data to breach victim generally does not work in the case of breached data brokers that trade in Social Security information and other data, because too often there are no unique markers in the consumer data that would indicate from where the information was obtained.

Even in the handful of cases where underground crime shops selling consumer personal data have included data points in the records they sell that would permit that source analysis, it has taken years’ worth of very imaginative investigation by law enforcement to determine which data brokers were at fault. In Nov. 2011, I wrote about an identity theft service called Superget[dot]info, noting that “each purchasable record contains a two- to three-letter “sourceid,” which may provide clues as to the source of this identity information.”

Unfortunately, the world didn’t learn the source of that ID theft service’s data until 2013, a year after U.S. Secret Service agents arrested the site’s proprietor — a 24-year-old from Vietnam who was posing as a private investigator based in the United States. Only then were investigators able to determine that the source ID data matched information being sold by a subsidiary of big-three credit bureau Experian (among other data brokers that were selling to the ID theft service). But federal agents made that connection only after an elaborate investigation that lured the proprietor of that shop out of Vietnam and into a U.S. territory.

Meanwhile, during the more than six years that this service was in operation, attracted more than 1,300 customers who paid at least $1.9 million to look up Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, previous addresses, email addresses and other sensitive information on consumers, much of it used for new account fraud and tax return fraud.

Investigators got a lucky break in determining the source of another ID theft service that was busted up and has since changed its name (more on that in a moment). That service — known as “ssndob[dot]ru” — was the service used by exposed[dot]su, a site that proudly displayed the Social Security, date of birth, address history and other information on dozens of Hollywood celebrities, as well as public officials such as First Lady Michelle Obama, then FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Director John Brennan.

As I explained in a 2013 exclusive, civilian fraud investigators working with law enforcement gained access to the back-end server that was being used to handle customer requests for consumer information. That database showed that the site’s 1,300 customers had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars looking up SSNs, birthdays, drivers license records, and obtaining unauthorized credit and background reports on more than four million Americans.

Although four million consumer records may seem like a big number, that figure did not represent the total number of consumer records available through ssndob[dot]ru. Rather, four million was merely the number of consumer records that the service’s customers had paid the service to look up. In short, it appeared that the ID theft service was drawing on active customer accounts inside of major consumer data brokers.

Investigators working on that case later determined that the same crooks who were running ssndob[dot]ru also were operating a small, custom botnet of hacked computers inside of several major data brokers, including LexisNexis, Dun & Bradstreet, and Kroll. All three companies acknowledged infections from the botnet, but shared little else about the incidents.

Despite their apparent role in facilitating (albeit unknowingly) these ID theft services, to my knowledge the data brokers involved have never been held publicly accountable in any court of law or by Congress.


At present, there are multiple shops in the cybercrime underground that sell everything one would need to steal someone’s identity in the United States or apply for new lines of credit in their name — including Social Security numbers, addresses, previous addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, and in some cases full credit history. The price of this information is shockingly low — about $3 to $5 per record.

KrebsOnSecurity conducted an exhaustive review of consumer data on sale at some of the most popular underground cybercrime sites. The results show that personal information on some of the most powerful Americans remains available for just a few dollars. And of course, if one can purchase this information on these folks, one can buy it on just about anyone in the United States today.

As an experiment, this author checked two of the most popular ID theft services in the underground for the availability of Social Security numbers, phone numbers, addresses and previous addresses on all members of the Senate Commerce Committee‘s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance. That data is currently on sale for all thirteen Democrat and Republican lawmakers on the panel.

Between these two ID theft services, the same personal information was for sale on Edith Ramirez and Richard Cordray, the heads of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), respectively. Continue reading →

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 →

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

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

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. 


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 →