The revelation of a massive data breach at credit giant Equifax is a a textbook example of poor protection and even worse public relations, but a leading cyber security expert says it leaves tens of millions of people vulnerable to fraud and identity theft for the rest of their lives.
Equifax is one of the three major institutions by which consumers check their credit scores and have their credit reviewed by third parties. In recent days, it admitted a months-long data breach may have compromised as many as 143 million people. The breach included hugely sensitive information, including consumers’ Social Security numbers.
Cyber Scout Founder and CEO Adam Levin says these breaches usually happen the same way.
“Apparently there was a vulnerability in software that they were using. They created a gap in their web security. As a result, the bad guys got in, crawled around for a few months and had access to a staggering amount of information,” said Levin, who is also author of “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in A World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves.”
Equifax responded by apologizing for the “disappointing event.”
“This isn’t a disappointing event. This is an outrageous event, It is a completely embarrassing event. It is a dangerous event,” said Levin.
Levin says if the breach only dealt with credit card or bank account information, the damage would be manageable. He says the compromising of Social Security numbers is potentially disastrous.
“When you’re dealing with a Social Security number, this is forever. The Social Security administration will almost never agree to change someone’s Social Security number. So if your Social Security number is on a database that is compromised, you will be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life,” said Levin.
A bad actor having your Social Security number can make you vulnerable to new account fraud, medical identity theft, tax fraud, child identity theft, and criminal identity theft. He says criminals using your information can make you a criminal in the eyes of the law.
“That’s where someone using your information commits a crime and the trail of bread crumbs leads back to you. And you’re driving down the street. You’re pulled over to the side of the road by law enforcement for a busted tail light. All of a sudden your car is surrounded by guys with guns. You’re thrown on the ground, handcuffed and hauled off, in some cases in front of your wife and kids,” said Levin.
He says someone making money while using your Social Security number could easily lead to a nightmare with the IRS.
“For example, someone gets your Social Security number, gets employment in your name by using your Social Security number. The income from that job is reported to your Social Security number. So all of a sudden, the IRS is on your tail, saying that you woefully under-reported your income,” said Levin.
He says the potential for financial wreckage in the wake of Equifax breach is huge.
“These are just some of the ramifications of something like this, and this impacts our entire society,” said Levin.
So how can companies and individuals stay ahead of the hackers? Levin says it requires a new mindset.
“Technology is not the solution to security. You have to create an environment, a culture of privacy and security within an organization. Everybody’s got to buy into it. Everybody has got to be at the top of their game,” said Levin.
“Every minute of every hour of every day, hackers are doing everything they can to constantly assault every database we have looking for the mother lode. And this time, of all times, they really hit it,” said Levin.
Levin advises everyone to protect their data using what he calls the three M’s: minimizing the risk in the first place, monitoring your data and protection methods constantly, and managing the damage when a breach does occur. He says cyber security leaders must be in a constant state of training to keep up with threats and observe any internal vulnerabilities.
“People need to be monitoring systems. They need to be looking for vulnerabilities. They need to patch those vulnerabilities immediately. They need to be monitoring their vendors. In the world we live in, you are your vendor. If something goes wrong with a vendor that leads back to you or data that you have something to do with, it becomes your liability and your problem,” said Levin.
Levin also advises IT professionals to keep a constant eye out for the outflow of data from their systems.
“You need to have systems that monitor data exfiltration. Is an unusual amount of information leaving your system or can you see someone crawling around your system and what can you do about it?,” said Levin.
“Data needs to be encrypted. Security needs to be layered, so that even if someone gets into one level of a company, they can’t necessarily get into the most sensitive information held by the database of that company,” said Levin.
Levin is also shaking his head over what he calls a “clumsy” response from Equifax. In addition to the massive breach being called a “disappointing event,” he says a website hastily arranged to provide information to consumers was flawed to the point of being flagged as a phishing scam and Equifax offered a free year of credit monitoring only if the consumer agreed not to join any class-action lawsuits.
That condition has since been withdrawn, but Levin still sees a year’s worth of free protection as a paltry offer.
“For the institution that basically exposed your data to come back with a program saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, we’re going to take care of you for a year. Things are good.’ You’re looking at them like, ‘Are you out of your mind?'” said Levin.
For individuals, Levin strongly recommends several steps, including tough passwords, making sure you don’t offer data to anyone who calls you but only when you contact an institution. He also endorses two-factor authentication, meaning you are notified by a bank or other institution and must submit a correct code to allow any transaction to proceed.
He also urges everyone to keep close track of their credit score to notice any sudden changes and to enroll in any monitoring program, whether at your job or anywhere else where your personal data is on file.
“Check with your insurance agent, your financial services rep, and the HR department where you work. Say, ‘Do you have a program to help me through an identity incident? Am I in it? If not, what do I need to do to get in it? Is it free or what’s it going to cost?'” said Levin.
“I guarantee that whatever it costs is incredibly reasonable, compared to the pain that you’ll suffer by becoming a victim of one of these kinds of scams that relate to identity theft,” said Levin.