Feeds

Invasion of the identity snatchers

They're coming. Don't fall asleep

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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.

Related stories

World's largest ID theft felon faces 14 years' jail
Phishermen attack on a viral scale
Spammer charged in huge Acxiom personal data theft
Gov.uk launches anti-fraud website
Anti-phishing group backs email authentication
Would you trade your password for chocolate?

Remote control for virtualized desktops

More from The Register

next story
Regin: The super-spyware the security industry has been silent about
NSA fingered as likely source of complex malware family
Why did it take antivirus giants YEARS to drill into super-scary Regin? Symantec responds...
FYI this isn't just going to target Windows, Linux and OS X fans
Privacy bods offer GOV SPY VICTIMS a FREE SPYWARE SNIFFER
Looks for gov malware that evades most antivirus
Patch NOW! Microsoft slings emergency bug fix at Windows admins
Vulnerability promotes lusers to domain overlords ... oops
HACKERS can DELETE SURVEILLANCE DVRS remotely – report
Hikvision devices wide open to hacking, claim securobods
'Regin': The 'New Stuxnet' spook-grade SOFTWARE WEAPON described
'A degree of technical competence rarely seen'
Home Office: Fancy flogging us some SECRET SPY GEAR?
If you do, tell NOBODY what it's for or how it works
Syrian Electronic Army in news site 'hack' POP-UP MAYHEM
Gigya redirect exploit blamed for pop-rageous ploy
prev story

Whitepapers

Seattle children’s accelerates Citrix login times by 500% with cross-tier insight
Seattle Children’s is a leading research hospital with a large and growing Citrix XenDesktop deployment. See how they used ExtraHop to accelerate launch times.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
How to determine if cloud backup is right for your servers
Two key factors, technical feasibility and TCO economics, that backup and IT operations managers should consider when assessing cloud backup.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Business security measures using SSL
Examines the major types of threats to information security that businesses face today and the techniques for mitigating those threats.