Regulatory Reality

Apr 8 2010   2:24PM GMT

Online identify theft: One victim’s story

David Schneier David Schneier Profile: David Schneier

Last month I blogged about a phishing attempt that landed in my inbox.  The email account belonged to someone named Rebecca Keen who I had never heard of before (or so I believed at the time).  As I was finishing writing that post, I received a follow-up email from the same person indicating that all was well, that her account was hacked and asked that no one respond to the original phishing email.  As it turned out, Rebecca Keen was actually someone in my extended network, courtesy of a PTA email thread that I was part of.  Because she used Yahoo mail and went with their default settings, all of her outbound email addresses were added to her address book and so I was one of her contacts.

Ms. Keen was kind enough to share her story with me so that I in turn could share it with you.

Her bad day started with the most basic error in judgement: She responded to a Yahoo-branded email requesting that she confirm her account information or else her account would be closed.  She said that “despite my initial instincts, I fell for it.”  It’s not hard to understand why.  Like most parents with school-age children, she has too much going on, depends on email to keep things moving and if she is anything like my wife, is of a mind to address things as they arise; she was a perfect target for a hacker.

Ms. Keen first became aware that she was about to have a bad day when she received an early morning phone call from a friend indicating they’d received an email from her asking for help.  She attempted to sign on to her Yahoo account to see what was going on but the hackers had changed her password and she was locked out.  She explained what happened next:

I had to wait for Yahoo to open at 9:00am to resolve the issue and regain access to my account.  Yahoo was extremely helpful and we were able to take the account back quite easily.  The representative I spoke with knew to advise me to confirm if any of my personal information had been changed, which it had.  An alternate email address had been added by the hacker as a way to retain control of my account even after I had gotten back in.  And my understanding is this is how they would continue to log in and check to see if anyone was actually trying to send me money.  If I did not know to delete this alternate email, the hackers could continue to monitor the account and target anyone asking me where to send the money.”

I asked her if anyone actually attempted to send money or respond favorably to the hacker’s phishing attempt and fortunately no one had.  While she did receive a few calls and/or emails trying to confirm if the request was legitimate, because as Ms. Keen explained, “They did indeed want to help me if I really needed it,” no one actually took further action.  Apparently the majority of people who received the phishing attempt knew it was a hoax and ignored it (score one for security awareness in the private sector).

Was there a lesson learned from all of this for Ms. Keen to share?

Do not respond to emails requesting personal account information, no matter how reputable they may seem,” she said.  “As Yahoo explained, they would never request that sort of account information from me (they already have it and there is no need for it to be confirmed).”

To which I would add that you could easily replace the Yahoo name with literally any reputable business with which you have an online account.  I would also recommend that you print Rebecca Keen’s advice and tape it to your monitors and keyboards at both work and home for all to see.  Because whether it be the result of a successful phishing attempt, poor judgment or sloppy controls (e.g. sticky notes under the keyboard/phone/stapler, etc.) the number one entry point used by hackers to gain access to sensitive information remains password sharing.

Check back here next week. I have an interesting (if not scary) story to share about how some financial institutions are (mis)managing regulatory requirements.

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