It is a serious claim that data breach notification letters may facilitate identity theft. Rather than make an argument for that position, an explanation of how to accomplish identity theft using a data breach notification letter will be provided here and publicized elsewhere. When malicious actors begin performing the exploit, debate over the proposition reflected in the title will become moot.
The steps are not complicated and may be accomplished by nearly anyone; technical skills for hacking are not required.
- Obtain a copy of a breach notification letter that advertises free credit monitoring and provides contact information for a credit monitoring agency that will purportedly provide the service.
- Upon a news event proclaiming a data breach of a large retailer, financial institution, or company that provides payroll or accounting services to large employers, tailor the letter to appear to be from the breached entity. If the breached entity is a company that provides business services, rather than only consumer products, alter the letter to state that large retailers or employers use the company for payroll or other accounting services. Many people may readily accept that some large retailer uses a particular bank in an official-looking letter, because there may be no way for consumers to readily ascertain otherwise.
- In the contact information for the credit monitoring agency, put the website address for your own website – something that appears (at least superficially) to be legitimate and a phone number that will be forwarded somewhere outside the U.S. legal jurisdiction.
- Create a website that appears legitimate and both refers website visitors to your special phone number and also conveniently permits visitors to enter personal data in order to start their “free credit monitoring service” right away.
- Staff a call center where the phone number rings, with people trained to act as customer service representatives of the credit monitoring agency.
- Purchase a list of addresses, such as those commonly sold for direct mail advertising campaigns. Expect to pay more for lists that are advertised as having a higher rate of response. If possible, perhaps select a list that may be at least somewhat tailored geographically or demographically to coincide with likely customers of the breached entity or a retailer (which you had asserted in the letter to be a customer of the breached entity).
- Mail your breach notification letter to the addresses on the list, and wait for the phone calls to start coming in.
- Some consumers may investigate whether a breach had actually occurred. This is why it may be beneficial to send out your own letter under the cover of a legitimate breach event. When the consumers (who did bother to investigate) see news of the breach on the internet, they may be more likely to trust your letter and respond to your invitation to divulge important information.
- When your call center receives phone calls from panicked recipients of the letter, take in their personal information. Your call center staff may request all personal information that is necessary to perform credit monitoring and “verify” the callers’ identities. The callers will likely provide all the information necessary to accomplish a first-rate identity theft, without suspicion.
Why will this work?
Because your data breach notification letter will not urge the recipients to independently obtain the contact information for the credit monitoring agency by themselves. The serious problem here is that the consumers may have already received prior breach notification letters (from earlier breaches in which they were victims) – and most likely none of those letters urged the recipients to independently obtain the contact information, either.
A fundamental security concept is that an initial notification of an alleged security incident (or risk), and critical information regarding remediation resources, should arrive through different channels. Such a protocol can reduce the likelihood that a single compromise of one communication channel can induce someone to take actions that may be problematic. Unfortunately, however, many common data breach notification rules (whether law or regulation) mandate that the contact information for credit reporting agencies be included in the communication to breach victims. Companies (and vendors providing notification services) simply have no choice.
Although the intent is clearly for the victims’ convenience, the result is not entirely harmless: The current content of breach notification letters is conditioning consumers to become complacent in a poor security practice, trusting information regarding remediation within the same correspondence that provided the initial alert regarding a security incident or risk. Because many consumers have already seen at least one data breach notification letter, some may already be conditioned to improperly trust a single notice, and thus may be more susceptible to the exploit.
A solution, and reversal of the conditioning accomplished thus far, is not difficult: The requirement that the contact information for a credit reporting agency be included within breach notifications should be replaced with a requirement to encourage consumers to obtain the credit reporting agency’s contact information through independently verifiable sources. Additionally, it may be helpful to include an admonition to not trust company contact information found within any correspondence that arrives unexpectedly (as breach notification letters often do) in the future, and also a suggestion that consumers should generally use only contact information that the consumers had located with their own efforts, prior to disclosing information that could be used for identity theft.
If the requirement persists to include contact information for a credit reporting agency within breach notifications, companies that generate the notifications may wish to conspicuously note that the information is required by law, and also conspicuously inform consumers regarding independent verification being the more secure practice.
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