Category: Other

Sep 21 2017

Krebs on Security 2017-09-21 11:06:57

An alert reader recently pointed my attention to a free online service offered by big-three credit bureau Experian that allows anyone to request the personal identification number (PIN) needed to unlock a consumer credit file that was previously frozen at Experian.

Experian's page for retrieving someone's credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

Experian’s page for retrieving someone’s credit freeze PIN requires little more information than has already been leaked by big-three bureau Equifax and a myriad other breaches.

The first hurdle for instantly revealing anyone’s freeze PIN is to provide the person’s name, address, date of birth and Social Security number (all data that has been jeopardized in breaches 100 times over — including in the recent Equifax breach — and that is broadly for sale in the cybercrime underground).

After that, one just needs to input an email address to receive the PIN and swear that the information is true and belongs to the submitter. I’m certain this warning would deter all but the bravest of identity thieves!

The final authorization check is that Experian asks you to answer four so-called “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions. As I have noted in countless stories published here previously, the problem with relying on KBA questions to authenticate consumers online is that so much of the information needed to successfully guess the answers to those multiple-choice questions is now indexed or exposed by search engines, social networks and third-party services online — both criminal and commercial.

What’s more, many of the companies that provide and resell these types of KBA challenge/response questions have been hacked in the past by criminals that run their own identity theft services.

“Whenever I’m faced with KBA-type questions I find that database tools like Spokeo, Zillow, etc are my friend because they are more likely to know the answers for me than I am,” said Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher in networking and security for the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI).

The above quote from Mr. Weaver came in a story from May 2017 which looked at how identity thieves were able to steal financial and personal data for over a year from TALX, an Equifax subsidiary that provides online payroll, HR and tax services. Equifax says crooks were able to reset the 4-digit PIN given to customer employees as a password and then steal W-2 tax data after successfully answering KBA questions about those employees.

In short: Crooks and identity thieves broadly have access to the data needed to reliably answer KBA questions on most consumers. That is why this offering from Experian completely undermines the entire point of placing a freeze. 

After discovering this portal at Experian, I tried to get my PIN, but the system failed and told me to submit the request via mail. That’s fine and as far as I’m concerned the way it should be. However, I also asked my followers on Twitter who have freezes in place at Experian to test it themselves. More than a dozen readers responded in just a few minutes, and most of them reported success at retrieving their PINs on the site and via email after answering the KBA questions.

Here’s a sample of the KBA questions the site asked one reader:

1. Please select the city that you have previously resided in.

2. According to our records, you previously lived on (XXTH). Please choose the city from the following list where this street is located.

3. Which of the following people live or previously lived with you at the address you provided?

4. Please select the model year of the vehicle you purchased or leased prior to July 2017 .

Experian will display the freeze PIN on its site, and offer to send it to an email address of your choice.

Experian will display the freeze PIN on its site, and offer to send it to an email address of your choice. Image: Rob Jacques.

I understand if people who place freezes on their credit files are prone to misplacing the PIN provided by the bureaus that is needed to unlock or thaw a freeze. This is human nature, and the bureaus should absolutely have a reliable process to recover this PIN. However, the information should be sent via snail mail to the address on the credit record, not via email to any old email address.

This is yet another example of how someone or some entity other than the credit bureaus needs to be in put in charge of rethinking and rebuilding the process by which consumers apply for and manage credit freezes. I addressed some of these issues — as well as other abuses by the credit reporting bureaus — in the second half of a long story published Wednesday evening.

Experian has not yet responded to requests for comment.

While this service is disappointing, I stand by my recommendation that everyone should place a freeze on their credit files. I published a detailed Q&A a few days ago about why this is so important and how you can do it. For those wondering about whether it’s possible and advisable to do this for their kids or dependents, check out The Lowdown on Freezing Your Kid’s Credit.

Sep 20 2017

Krebs on Security 2017-09-20 23:35:26

Bloomberg published a story this week citing three unnamed sources who told the publication that Equifax experienced a breach earlier this year which predated the intrusion that the big-three credit bureau announced on Sept. 7. To be clear, this earlier breach at Equifax is not a new finding and has been a matter of public record for months. Furthermore, it was first reported on this Web site in May 2017.

equihaxIn my initial Sept. 7 story about the Equifax breach affecting more than 140 million Americans, I noted that this was hardly the first time Equifax or another major credit bureau has experienced a breach impacting a significant number of Americans.

On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity reported that fraudsters exploited lax security at Equifax’s TALX payroll division, which provides online payroll, HR and tax services.

That story was about how Equifax’s TALX division let customers who use the firm’s payroll management services authenticate to the service with little more than a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN).

Identity thieves who specialize in perpetrating tax refund fraud figured out that they could reset the PINs of payroll managers at various companies just by answering some multiple-guess questions — known as “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions — such as previous addresses and dates that past home or car loans were granted.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Bloomberg ran a piece with reporting from no fewer than five journalists there who relied on information provided by three anonymous sources. Those sources reportedly spoke in broad terms about an earlier breach at Equifax, and told the publication that these two incidents were thought to have been perpetrated by the same group of hackers.

The Bloomberg story did not name TALX. Only post-publication did Bloomberg reporters update the piece to include a statement from Equifax saying the breach was unrelated to the hack announced on Sept. 7, and that it had to do with a security incident involving a payroll-related service during the 2016 tax year.

I have thus far seen zero evidence that these two incidents are related. Equifax has said the unauthorized access to customers’ employee tax records (we’ll call this “the March breach” from here on) happened between April 17, 2016 and March 29, 2017.

The criminals responsible for unauthorized activity in the March breach were participating in an insidious but common form of cybercrime known as tax refund fraud, which involves filing phony tax refund requests with the IRS and state tax authorities using the personal information from identity theft victims.

My original report on the March breach was based on public breach disclosures that Equifax was required by law to file with several state attorneys general.

Because the TALX incident exposed the tax and payroll records of its customers’ employees, the victim customers were in turn required to notify their employees as well. That story referenced public breach disclosures from five companies that used TALX, including defense contractor giant Northrop Grumman; staffing firm Allegis GroupSaint-Gobain Corp.; Erickson Living; and the University of Louisville.

When asked Tuesday about previous media coverage of the March breach, Equifax pointed National Public Radio (NPR) to coverage in KrebsonSecurity.

One more thing before I move on to the analysis. For more information on why KBA is a woefully ineffective method of stopping fraudsters, see this story from 2013 about how some of the biggest vendors of these KBA questions were all hacked by criminals running an identity theft service online.

Or, check out these stories about how tax refund fraudsters used weak KBA questions to steal personal data on hundreds of thousands of taxpayers directly from the Internal Revenue Service‘s own Web site. It’s probably worth mentioning that Equifax provided those KBA questions as well.

ANALYSIS

Over the past two weeks, KrebsOnSecurity has received an unusually large number of inquiries from reporters at major publications who were seeking background interviews so that they could get up to speed on Equifax’s spotty security history (sadly, Bloomberg was not among them).

These informational interviews — in which I agree to provide context and am asked to speak mainly on background — are not unusual; I sometimes field two or three of these requests a month, and very often more when time permits. And for the most part I am always happy to help fellow journalists make sure they get the facts straight before publishing them.

But I do find it slightly disturbing that there appear to be so many reporters on the tech and security beats who apparently lack basic knowledge about what these companies do and their roles in perpetuating — not fighting — identity theft.

It seems to me that some of the world’s most influential publications have for too long given Equifax and the rest of the credit reporting industry a free pass — perhaps because of the complexities involved in succinctly explaining the issues to consumers. Indeed, I would argue the mainstream media has largely failed to hold these companies’ feet to the fire over a pattern of lax security and a complete disregard for securing the very sensitive consumer data that drives their core businesses.

To be sure, Equifax has dug themselves into a giant public relations hole, and they just keep right on digging. On Sept. 8, I published a story equating Equifax’s breach response to a dumpster fire, noting that it could hardly have been more haphazard and ill-conceived.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since then, Equifax’s response to this incident has been even more astonishingly poor.

EQUIPHISH

On Tuesday, the official Equifax account on Twitter replied to a tweet requesting the Web address of the site that the company set up to give away its free one-year of credit monitoring service. That site is https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, but the company’s Twitter account told users to instead visit securityequifax2017[dot]com, which is currently blocked by multiple browsers as a phishing site.

equiphish

FREEZING UP

Under intense public pressure from federal lawmakers and regulators, Equifax said that for 30 days it would waive the fee it charges for placing a security freeze on one’s credit file (for more on what a security freeze entails and why you and your family should be freezing their files, please see The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know).

Unfortunately, the free freeze offer from Equifax doesn’t mean much if consumers can’t actually request one via the company’s freeze page; I have lost count of how many comments have been left here by readers over the past week complaining of being unable to load the site, let alone successfully obtain a freeze. Instead, consumers have been told to submit the requests and freeze fees in writing and to include copies of identity documents to validate the requests.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) recently introduced a measure that would force the bureaus to eliminate the freeze fees and to streamline the entire process. To my mind, that bill could not get passed soon enough.

Understand that each credit bureau has a legal right to charge up to $20 in some states to freeze a credit file, and in many states they are allowed to charge additional fees if consumers later wish to lift or temporarily thaw a freeze. This is especially rich given that credit bureaus earn roughly $1 every time a potential creditor (or identity thief) inquires about your creditworthiness, according to Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst with Gartner Inc.

In light of this, it’s difficult to view these freeze fees as anything other than a bid to discourage consumers from filing them.

The Web sites where consumers can go to file freezes at the other major bureaus — including TransUnion and Experian — have hardly fared any better since Equifax announced the breach on Sept. 7. Currently, if you attempt to freeze your credit file at TransUnion, the company’s site is relentless in trying to steer you away from a freeze and toward the company’s free “credit lock” service.

That service, called TrueIdentity, claims to allow consumers to lock or unlock their credit files for free as often as they like with the touch of a button. But readers who take the bait probably won’t notice or read the terms of service for TrueIdentity, which has the consumer agree to a class action waiver, a mandatory arbitration clause, and something called ‘targeted marketing’ from TransUnion and their myriad partners.

The agreement also states TransUnion may share the data with other companies:

“If you indicated to us when you registered, placed an order or updated your account that you were interested in receiving information about products and services provided by TransUnion Interactive and its marketing partners, or if you opted for the free membership option, your name and email address may be shared with a third party in order to present these offers to you. These entities are only allowed to use shared information for the intended purpose only and will be monitored in accordance with our security and confidentiality policies. In the event you indicate that you want to receive offers from TransUnion Interactive and its marketing partners, your information may be used to serve relevant ads to you when you visit the site and to send you targeted offers.  For the avoidance of doubt, you understand that in order to receive the free membership, you must agree to receive targeted offers.

TransUnion then encourages consumers who are persuaded to use the “free” service to subscribe to “premium” services for a monthly fee with a perpetual auto-renewal.

In short, TransUnion’s credit lock service (and a similarly named service from Experian) doesn’t prevent potential creditors from accessing your files, and these dubious services allow the credit bureaus to keep selling your credit history to lenders (or identity thieves) as they see fit.

As I wrote in a Sept. 11 Q&A about the Equifax breach, I take strong exception to the credit bureaus’ increasing use of the term “credit lock” to divert people away from freezes. Their motives for saddling consumers with even more confusing terminology are suspect, and I would not count on a credit lock to take the place of a credit freeze, regardless of what these companies claim (consider the source).

Experian’s freeze Web site has performed little better since Sept. 7. Several readers pinged KrebsOnSecurity via email and Twitter to complain that while Experian’s freeze site repeatedly returned error messages stating that the freeze did not go through, these readers’ credit cards were nonetheless charged $15 freeze fees multiple times.

If the above facts are not enough to make your blood boil, consider that Equifax and other bureaus have been lobbying lawmakers in Congress to pass legislation that would dramatically limit the ability of consumers to sue credit bureaus for sloppy security, and cap damages in related class action lawsuits to $500,000.

If ever there was an industry that deserved obsolescence or at least more regulation, it is the credit bureaus. If either of those outcomes are to become reality, it is going to take much more attentive and relentless coverage on the part of the world’s top news publications. That’s because there’s a lot at stake here for an industry that lobbies heavily (and successfully) against any new laws that may restrict their businesses.

Here’s hoping the media can get up to speed quickly on this vitally important topic, and help lead the debate over legal and regulatory changes that are sorely needed.

Sep 14 2017

Krebs on Security 2017-09-14 14:03:12

Visa and MasterCard are sending confidential alerts to financial institutions across the United States this week, warning them about more than 200,000 credit cards that were stolen in the epic data breach announced last week at big-three credit bureau Equifax. At first glance, the private notices obtained by KrebsOnSecurity appear to suggest that hackers initially breached Equifax starting in November 2016. But Equifax says the accounts were all stolen at the same time — when hackers accessed the company’s systems in mid-May 2017.

equifax-hq

Both Visa and MasterCard frequently send alerts to card-issuing financial institutions with information about specific credit and debit cards that may have been compromised in a recent breach. But it is unusual for these alerts to state from which company the accounts were thought to have been pilfered.

In this case, however, Visa and MasterCard were unambiguous, referring to Equifax specifically as the source of an e-commerce card breach.

In a non-public alert sent this week to sources at multiple banks, Visa said the “window of exposure” for the cards stolen in the Equifax breach was between Nov. 10, 2016 and July 6, 2017. A similar alert from MasterCard included the same date range.

“The investigation is ongoing and this information may be amended as new details arise,” Visa said in its confidential alert, linking to the press release Equifax initially posted about the breach on Sept. 7, 2017.

The card giant said the data elements stolen included card account number, expiration date, and the cardholder’s name. Fraudsters can use this information to conduct e-commerce fraud at online merchants.

It would be tempting to conclude from these alerts that the card breach at Equifax dates back to November 2016, and that perhaps the intruders then managed to install software capable of capturing customer credit card data in real-time as it was entered on one of Equifax’s Web sites.

Indeed, that was my initial hunch in deciding to report out this story. But according to a statement from Equifax, the hacker(s) downloaded the data in one fell swoop in mid-May 2017.

“The attacker accessed a storage table that contained historical credit card transaction related information,” the company said. “The dates that you provided in your e-mail appear to be the transaction dates. We have found no evidence during our investigation to indicate the presence of card harvesting malware, or access to the table before mid-May 2017.”

Equifax did not respond to questions about how it was storing credit card data, or why only card data collected from customers after November 2016 was stolen.

In its initial breach disclosure on Sept. 7, Equifax said it discovered the intrusion on July 29, 2017. The company said the hackers broke in through a vulnerability in the software that powers some of its Web-facing applications.

In an update to its breach disclosure published Wednesday evening, Equifax confirmed reports that the application flaw in question was a weakness disclosed in March 2017 in a popular open-source software package called Apache Struts (CVE-2017-5638)

“Equifax has been intensely investigating the scope of the intrusion with the assistance of a leading, independent cybersecurity firm to determine what information was accessed and who has been impacted,” the company wrote. “We know that criminals exploited a U.S. website application vulnerability. The vulnerability was Apache Struts CVE-2017-5638. We continue to work with law enforcement as part of our criminal investigation, and have shared indicators of compromise with law enforcement.”

The Apache flaw was first spotted around March 7, 2017, when security firms began warning that attackers were actively exploiting a “zero-day” vulnerability in Apache Struts. Zero-days refer to software or hardware flaws that hackers find and figure out how to use for commercial or personal gain before the vendor even knows about the bugs.

By March 8, Apache had released new versions of the software to mitigate the vulnerability. But by that time exploit code that would allow anyone to take advantage of the flaw was already published online — making it a race between companies needing to patch their Web servers and hackers trying to exploit the hole before it was closed.

Screen shots apparently taken on March 10, 2017 and later posted to the vulnerability tracking site xss[dot]cx indicate that the Apache Struts vulnerability was present at the time on annualcreditreport.com — the only web site mandated by Congress where all Americans can go to obtain a free copy of their credit reports from each of the three major bureaus annually.

In another screen shot apparently made that same day and uploaded to xss[dot]cx, we can see evidence that the Apache Struts flaw also was present in Experian’s Web properties.

Equifax has said the unauthorized access occurred from mid-May through July 2017, suggesting either that the company’s Web applications were still unpatched in mid-May or that the attackers broke in earlier but did not immediately abuse their access.

It remains unclear when exactly Equifax managed to fully eliminate the Apache Struts flaw from their various Web server applications. But one thing we do know for sure: The hacker(s) got in before Equifax closed the hole, and their presence wasn’t discovered until July 29, 2017.

Update, Sept. 15, 12:31 p.m. ET: Visa has updated their advisory about these 200,000+ credit cards stolen in the Equifax breach. Visa now says it believes the records also included the cardholder’s Social Security number and address, suggesting that (ironically enough) the accounts were stolen from people who were signing up for credit monitoring services through Equifax.

Equifax also clarified the breach timeline to note that it patched the Apache Struts flaw in its Web applications only after taking the hacked system(s) offline on July 30, 2017. Which means Equifax left its systems unpatched for more than four months after a patch (and exploit code to attack the flaw) was publicly available.

Sep 13 2017

Krebs on Security 2017-09-13 12:42:30

Adobe and Microsoft both on Tuesday released patches to plug critical security vulnerabilities in their products. Microsoft’s patch bundles fix close to 80 separate security problems in various versions of its Windows operating system and related software — including two vulnerabilities that already are being exploited in active attacks. Adobe’s new version of its Flash Player software tackles two flaws that malware or attackers could use to seize remote control over vulnerable computers with no help from users.

brokenwindows

Of the two zero-day flaws being fixed this week, the one in Microsoft’s ubiquitous .NET Framework (CVE-2017-8759) is perhaps the most concerning. Despite this flaw being actively exploited, it is somehow labeled by Microsoft as “important” rather than “critical” — the latter being the most dire designation.

More than two dozen flaws Microsoft remedied with this patch batch come with a “critical” warning, which means they could be exploited without any assistance from Windows users — save for perhaps browsing to a hacked or malicious Web site.

Regular readers here probably recall that I’ve often recommended installing .NET updates separately from any remaining Windows updates, mainly because in past instances in which I’ve experienced problems installing Windows updates, a .NET patch was usually involved.

For the most part, Microsoft now bundles all security updates together in one big patch ball for regular home users — no longer letting people choose which patches to install. One exception is patches for the .NET Framework, and I stand by my recommendation to install the patch roll-ups separately, reboot, and then tackle the .NET updates. Your mileage may vary.

Another vulnerability Microsoft fixed addresses “BlueBorne” (CVE-2017-8628), which is a flaw in the Bluetooth wireless data transmission standard that attackers could use to snarf data from Bluetooth-enabled devices that are physically nearby and with Bluetooth turned on.

For more on this month’s Patch Tuesday from Microsoft, check out Microsoft’s security update guide, as well as this blog from Ivanti (formerly Shavlik).

brokenflash-aAdobe’s newest Flash version — v. 27.0.0.130 for Windows, Mac and Linx systems — corrects two critical bugs in Flash. For those of you who still have and want Adobe Flash Player installed in a browser, it’s time to update and/or restart your browser.

Windows users who browse the Web with anything other than Internet Explorer may need to apply the Flash patch twice, once with IE and again using the alternative browser (Firefox, Opera, e.g.).

Chrome and IE should auto-install the latest Flash version on browser restart (users may need to manually check for updates and/or restart the browser to get the latest Flash version). Chrome users may need to restart the browser to install or automatically download the latest version. When in doubt, click the vertical three dot icon to the right of the URL bar, select “Help,” then “About Chrome”: If there is an update available, Chrome should install it then. Chrome will replace that three dot icon with an up-arrow inside of a circle when updates are ready to install).

Better yet, consider removing or at least hobbling Flash Player, which is a perennial target of malware attacks. Most sites have moved away from requiring Flash, and Adobe itself is sunsetting this product (albeit not for another long two more years).

Windows users can get rid of Flash through the Add/Remove Programs menu, unless they’re using Chrome, which bundles its own version of Flash Player. To get to the Flash settings page, type or cut and paste “chrome://settings/content” into the address bar, and click on the Flash result.