Hacker investigation unveils huge ID theft case

Dec. 1, 2002


What is now being called the largest case of identity theft in U.S. history was revealed last week by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York. Three men were charged with running an ID theft ring that stole more than 30,000 consumers' credit information, which was sold and later abused.

So far, the losses attributed to the theft are said to top $2.7 million, according to a story on the Internetnews.com Web site.

The charges resulted from an investigation that began after a reported computer hacking incident at Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies. Experian's credit database had been illegally accessed over a 10-month period. Hackers stole credit information about more than 15,000 Ford Motor Credit customers.

One of the men charged in the case was a former help desk employee of a Long Island, N.Y. company whose computers were used to run credit checks. The man used the company's codes to conduct the theft, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

As a result of the ID theft, victims' checking and saving accounts were emptied, purchases were charged to credit cards, new addresses were established for many accounts and new credit cards, checks and ATM cards were requested.

UNSTOPPABLE? We have all heard of the steps consumers should take to prevent the theft of personal information. Among them, closely guard your Social Security number; never write your ATM PIN number on the card; keep any carbons showing your credit card data; and use passwords that are difficult to guess if you have password protected accounts.

None of the usual safeguards offered by consumer groups would have mattered in this latest case of identity theft. The culprits had inside information, and could go shopping for victims as easily as you scroll through the auction listings on eBay.com.

Despite all the safeguards and high-tech security, it all boils down to the fact that any confidential system is only as trustworthy as the people it employs. In this case, the employee spent more than a year accessing credit reports of consumers, mostly those living in affluent neighborhoods, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"At end of the day, other people have custody of your information and it's very difficult for consumers to control that," said Betsy Broder, the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft expert. "Even when you give the information to legitimate merchants, it's only as safe as that institution's safeguards."

It's up to consumers to keep watch their backs when it comes to their credit, experts say. While this has always been true, the most recent ID theft case highlights the need for anyone with a credit rating to monitor it closely, if for nothing more than accuracy.

To find out how to get copies of your credit report, visit the Equifax (www.equifax.com), TransUnion (www.transunion.com) and Experian (www.experian.com).

DETECTING ID THEFT. The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips for detecting identity theft, and steps to minimize potential losses in event of a theft.

-- Make annual checks of your credit record at all three major credit reporting agencies.

-- Make note if a creditor's monthly bill does not arrive. A missing credit card bill could mean a thief has hijacked your account and entered a change of address.

-- If you have been a victim of ID theft, the FTC has an ID theft affidavit that can be downloaded and sent to financial institutions to report the theft.

-- If your credit report indicates accounts opened without your knowledge, contact the security departments at those institutions and close them. Also contact the three major credit bureaus and have them flag your credit file for possible fraudulent activity.

-- File a report with the local police.

For more tips on what consumers can do if they suspect their identity has been stolen, visit the Federal Trade Commission's Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

KAZAA BUG. A malicious file that can erase all the music files on a user's computer has hit users of the popular KaZaA peer-to-peer file-trading network.

One of the KaZaA software's features is its ability to change its look with the use of different "skins," small files that affect its configuration. One of these files, the Magic Eightball skin, brings with it some nasty surprises.

When executed, the file erases the music files on the computer and crashes the operating system. TechTV reported last week that in its tests of the file (which is considered a Trojan horse program and not a virus), Magic Eightball did not activate on a computer running Windows 98.

On a Windows XP computer however, the file executed and a box appeared asking if the user wants to "see some magic." After clicking "yes," a countdown began and then all the MP3 music files on the system were erased and the PC crashed.

Fortunately, Magic Eightball is only spread via the KaZaA system. You don't have to worry about it coming to you in an e-mail message. Magic Eightball only can hit you if you download it.

As of Nov. 30, the file was still one of the 589 million files available to KaZaA's 3.2 million-plus users online. If you are searching for skin files to change the looks of your KaZaA program, don't try the Magic Eightball.

FEMA PORTAL. Most people only hear about the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- better known in the news as FEMA -- when disaster strikes. FEMA is the arm of the federal government that comes in to help people cope when homes and businesses are destroyed or no longer usable.

The site, DisasterHelp.gov, is a clearinghouse for information for victims and those who respond to help in disasters. The amount of information presented is massive, though the site does an excellent job of making it all easy to find.

While the site is operated by FEMA, it includes information from 26 partner agencies including the American Red Cross.

Victims can learn how to apply for disaster assistance and the types of benefits available to them. Responders have a section that is divided up by service -- police, fire, emergency managers and EMTs. If you can't find exactly what you want, the site is completely searchable.

The site is a work-in-progress, and plans are to continue to expand the site. For more information, visit DisasterHelp.gov.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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