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Invasion of the identity snatchers

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Last year I was the victim of identity theft, a sobering reality in today's world. An unscrupulous criminal managed to social engineer his way past the formidable security checks and balances provided by my credit card company, my bank, and one of my investment accounts. He methodically researched my background and personal information until he could successfully impersonate me, and then subsequently set forth to change the mailing addresses of my most important financial statements.

It was a harrowing experience, and one worth explaining in the context of the online world. Numerous visits to the local police and the Canadian RCMP revealed some rather surprising things: identity theft is already so common that there are entire units within law enforcement that deal with this issue every day. They have toll-free numbers, websites and documents that clearly define their incident response procedures. But the reality is, law enforcement will respond to these issues just as you might expect: with phone calls, in-person interviews, and some traditional detective work. It's still very much an analog world around us.

The other thing that became crystal clear during the process of regaining my own identity is this: for as capable as they may be, law enforcement is woefully ill-equipped to track down identity theft that starts online. As a security professional with a healthy dose of paranoia, I was confident that my online identity had not been compromised - a more traditional approach had been used. But with the sophistication of today's viruses, millions of others cannot say the same thing.

While not all identity theft starts online, the fact is that online identity theft is now incredibly easy to do. The same methodical, traditional approach that was used to steal my identity by placing phone calls is being sped up, improved upon, and made ever more lethal by first attacking the victim online. Your banking and credit card information can come later.

We all know how commonplace these technologies already are: keyloggers, Trojans with remote-control capabilities and even webcam control, and backdoors that give access to all your files. There are millions of these installed on infected machines all over the world, lurking in the shadows.

Ever do your taxes on your home computer? All it takes is one Social Insurance Number (or Social Security Number in America), plus some really basic personal information, and you're sunk. Every nugget of information can be worth its weight in gold if, for example, that online banking password that was just logged enables someone to change your address and then, a month later, take out a loan in your name.

The rise of phishing scams over the past two years alludes to this growing menace: your personal information, especially your banking and credit card information, has significant value to a criminal. No surprise there.

Working in the security field, many of us know people who are regularly infected with viruses, worms, Trojans. When it gets bad enough, they reformat and reinstall. I can't count the number of times I've heard people tell me that they're not overly concerned, as they believe that the (often, minimal) personal information on their computer is not inherently valuable. They've clearly never had their personal information put to ill use.

As I was reading the new Threat Report from Symantec, which documents historical virus trends, only the biggest numbers jumped out at me. The average time from vulnerability to exploit is now just 5.8 days. Some 40 per cent of Fortune 100 companies had been infected with worms over a period of six months. There were 4,496 new Microsoft Windows viruses discovered in six months, or an average of 24 new viruses every day. Basically, the epidemic is out of control.

With a few exceptions, however, the most popular and most prominent viruses and worms are not the ones that will be used to steal your identity. It's that carefully crafted email, or that feature-rich and bloated Trojan, that will be used in covert attempts.

Perhaps a suitable solution to the epidemic is a rather old one, and one that I employ myself: encryption of all the personal data that is deemed valuable. I'm not talking about your pictures of Aunt Tilly or your music archive - I'm referring to your tax returns, your financial information, your bill payments, etc. This approach still won't avoid the keyloggers or that remote control Trojan that's sitting on your drive, but it does help to avoid new surprises and mistaken clicks.

And to those users out there whom we deal with everyday and who still say there's nothing important on their computer that requires them to care about today's worms, Trojans, viruses, and so on, the day their own information is stolen and used against them is growing ever more near.

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

Kelly Martin is the content editor for SecurityFocus.

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