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Xbox Live account takeovers put users at risk

Celebrity gamer wants his virtual armor back

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Hackers have hijacked the Xbox Live account of a celebrity gamer and made off with a prized piece of virtual armor in a brazen act that suggests the online Microsoft service still puts the security of its users at risk.

Colin Fogle gained widespread acclaim in gaming circles after posting a video showing how it was possible for a Halo 3 player to shoot and kill himself with his own sniper rifle. Bungie Studios, maker of the wildly popular first-person shooter title, was so impressed it awarded him a special piece of in-game Recon armor and publicly acknowledged the feat.

Since then, the 18-year-old says his Xbox Live account has been hijacked three times. The most recent takeover came on December 29, when he was suddenly logged out of his Xbox Live account. When he tried to log back in, he got error messages saying his password didn't match his user name. And because accounts contain credit card numbers, home addresses and credentials used to log in to Hotmail and MSN Messenger accounts, the breach goes beyond a mere affront to a gamer's pride.

"With this kind of information, they can steal much bigger things than my virtual armor," Fogle says. "If somebody doesn't like you, anyone can do this. The thing that upsets me the most is that, as we looked into this more and more, we saw how easy it is."

Indeed, web searches like this one suggest it's not unusual for Xbox Live subscribers to report their accounts have been taken over.

Kevin Finisterre, a security researcher and Xbox Live enthusiast, has also investigated the topic when someone broke into his girlfriend's account last March after the pair accused some gaming rivals of cheating during a spirited session of Halo 2.

"At the end of the match, we voiced our opinion and a kid says, 'Shut up or I'll steal your Xbox Live account," Finisterre says. "About eight hours later, I wasn't able to log into my girlfriend's account."

Both Fogle and Finisterre say the thieves then took to online forums to brag of the exploits. In both cases, the thieves claimed they were able to access the accounts by coaxing information out from Xbox Live support employees.

The hackers frequently will call the toll-free number and pretend to be the owner of the account they want to take over. They will provide the Xbox Live ID and then ask for the physical address that's associated with the account. Later, they'll call back and ask for the phone number. Eventually, the hackers assemble enough information to convince a support person they are the rightful owners of the account.

Finisterre was able to piece together details of a friend's account when he (and the friend, who silently listened) used the technique last year. Managers from Xbox Live implemented changes designed to stop the abuse, Finisterre says, but even then, he continued to receive emails from frustrated game players who said their Xbox accounts had been broken into.

Microsoft representatives didn't respond to a request for comment. Fogle says he recently received a password reset form from Xbox support, but he has yet to complete it pending an investigation into the hack.

Meanwhile, the thief sporting Fogle's armor continues to cavort in forums and taunt its rightful owner.

Says Fogle: "Microsoft over time has shown they won't do anything unless it's a huge PR issue for them. We're paying dearly for this [service], and there's a huge security hole where we can lose our identity." ®

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