Thinking Tech

How to steal an identity in seven easy steps

How to steal an identity in seven easy steps

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Stealing another's identity requires no professional hacking experience, just common sense. A software engineer points the way.

Herbert Thompson seems like just another smart academic software developer who loves formulas and geeking out. But he’s also stolen the identities of several casual acquaintances. In fact in one case he gained access to a bank account in seven shockingly simple steps. And he used no special programming tricks, just common sense.

Thompson stole identities as an experiment back in 2008 to show the public how easy it is to get access to personal data and banking information. He proved it only requires some simple surfing for freely available personal data and cobbling it together in powerfully creative ways.  Thompson began his experiments by first receiving permission from people he barely knew to try to break into their bank accounts. What the following steps show is how vulnerable we all are to security breach.

The victim:
He knew her name was Kim, where she was from, where she worked and roughly her age. He also knew the name of her bank and her username although as Thompson says, this was easy to guess—it was her first initial and last name. (Note: Change your username to something a bit less obvious.)

Seven Steps:
1)    Google search. He googles her. Finds a blog and a resume. (Thompson called her blog a “goldmine.") He gets information about grandparents, pets, hometown. Most important he gets her college email address and current gmail address.
2)    Next stop: Password recovery feature on her bank's web site. He attempts to reset her bank password. But the bank sends a reset link to her email, which he does not have access to. So he needs to get access to her gmail.
3)    Gmail access. He attempts to reset her gmail password but gmail sends this to her college email address. Gmail tells you this address’  domain (at least it did in 2008 when Thompson conducted the experiments) so he knew he had to get access to that specific address.
4)    College email account page. Thompson clicks the “forgot password” link on this page and winds up facing a few questions. Home address, home zip code and home country? No problem, Thompson has it all from her resume. The same resume found from the simple google search done earlier. Then came a stumbling block: the college wanted her birthday. But he only had a rough idea of her age, no actual birth date.
5)    State traffic court web site. Apparently you can search for violations and court appearances by name! And such records include a birth date. (Facebook also makes this piece of data very easy to get even if people do not note their birth year…remember Thompson knew roughly how old Kim was.) But he had no luck with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
6)    Thompson goes back to the blog and does a search for “birthday.” He gets a date but no year.
7)    Finally, Thompson attempts the college reset password again. He fills in her birth date, and simply guesses the year. He gets it wrong. But the site gives him five chances, and tells him which field has the error. So he continues to guess. He gets access in under five guesses. He changes her college password. This gives him access to her gmail password reset email. Google requires some personal information which he is able to get easily from her blog (e.g., father’s middle name.) Thompson changes the gmail password and that gives him access to the bank account reset password email. Here again he is asked for personal information but nothing that he could not glean from Kim’s blog (e.g., pet name and phone number.) He resets the bank password and bingo, has immediate access to all her records and money.

From Thompson:

Needless to say, Kim was disturbed. Her whole digital identity sat precariously on the foundation of her college e-mail account; once I had access to it, the rest of the security defenses fell like a row of dominoes. What's striking about Kim's case is how common it is. For many of us, the abundance of personal information we put online combined with the popular model of sending a password reset e-mail has our online security resting unsteadily on the shoulders of one or two e-mail accounts.

Yes in this case the personal information came from her blog but it could have easily come from a Facebook page or other online community pages.

Thompson provides sage advice on Scientific American:

Go and do a self-check. Try to reset you passwords and see what questions are asked to verify your identity. Some questions are better than others. Date of birth, for example, is bad. In addition to the DMV, there is a wealth of public records available online where folks can track down when you were born. Most account reset features give you a choice of questions or methods to use. Go for questions that ask about obscure things that you won't forget (or can at least look up), like your favorite frequent flyer number. Avoid questions that are easy to guess, such as which state you opened your bank account in.

It's also critical to remember that once you put data online, it's almost impossible to delete it later. The more you blog about yourself, the more details you put in your social networking profiles, the more information about you is being archived, copied, backed up and analyzed almost immediately. Think first, post later.

[via Scientific American]

[photo via manitou2121]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure