On September 7, credit reporting agency Equifax announced “a cybersecurity incident potentially impacting approximately 143 million US consumers.” To put this in context, at this time, this incident is almost seven times larger than the Office of Personnel Management breach of 2015.
Equifax discovered the unauthorized access on July 29 and determined that the intrusion began in mid-May. Equifax stated that “the information accessed primarily includes names, Social Security Numbers (SSNs), birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers. In addition, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 US consumers, and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 US consumers, were accessed.”
In addition, the “limited personal information” for Canadian and UK citizens was all accessed. The initial attack vector was reported as a “web application vulnerability.”
What we don’t know about the Equifax breach
Whenever doing any sort of analysis, it is important to state what we don’t know. Simply put, there is a great deal we don’t know and most of the public will never know (despite what some talking heads might claim).
As a former incident responder, I know that investigations aren’t completed in the time it takes to complete an episode of TV drama Scorpion. (Did you know that Scorpion is starting its fourth season?)
Equifax stated that the investigation is “substantially complete,” but wisely added that “it remains ongoing and is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.”
- We don’t actually know how many SSNs were compromised.
- We don’t know if all 143 million individual’s SSNs were impacted.
- We don’t know the threat actor responsible for this intrusion. Equifax claimed that “criminals exploited” a web application, but attribution is always a challenge. Structured Analytic Techniques, like the Analysis of Competing Hypothesis we did forWannaCry, can be useful for considering attribution.
- Speaking of web applications, although we don’t know the specific vulnerability that was exploited, I’d bet 1,000 Gold Dragonsit was SQL injection.
What is most likely to happen next?
There is a wide range of possibilities, depending on the goals of the threat actor responsible for the Equifax intrusion. By the way, did I mention that attribution is challenging?
Attribution aside, one thing is certain though, regardless of the motivations of the attackers, this data is perfect for social engineering attacks.
Tax return fraud
SSNs are highly valuable for criminals looking to commit tax refund fraud. Fraudsters use SSNs to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund and it can be hard to find out if you’re a victim until it is too late.
There is some good advice from the IRS about what to do should you suffer from this form of fraud.
Opening fraudulent accounts
There is no shortage of alternative finance companies, such as those who provide short term loans. Fraudsters can successful open accounts in another individual’s name, using a combination of SSNs, fraudulent gas statements and other Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
Individuals should be extra-vigilant for any evidence of accounts being opened in their name.
PII is valuable to payment card fraudsters, who require such information to bypass security controls such as “Verified by Visa”, which sometimes ask for digits of cardholders’ SSNs.
There are plenty of high-quality cards that criminals use which do not require extra validation, but the lower-level carders must turn to SSNsto enrich lower-quality card dumps.
It’s important to remember that SSNs and payment card fraud are inextricably linked.
Benefits fraud and medical care fraud
Although less glamorous than tax return fraud and carding, benefit and medical care fraud is a real risk.
As with tax return fraud, this is hard to detect when it happens, but individuals can be vigilant when checking their Explanation of Benefits statement and flag any unfamiliar activity to their insurance provider.
Resale of data
It’s important to note that the individuals responsible for the breach are unlikely to be the same criminals conducting the day-to-day fraud. In the case of the Experian breach, this stolen data soon made its way on the (now defunct) Hansa marketplace.
As I’ve previously mentioned; there’s already a market for SSNs to enrich credit card information, so it’s likely that many actors could end up getting a piece of the pie.
For lower level criminals, the expenses associated with criminal activities will get even lower. SSNs are already cheap; on one AVC (Automated Vending Cart) site, there are over 3.4 million SSNs for sale at only $1.
This includes full names, addresses, and – for a large number of accounts – dates of birth. In California alone, there were 334,000 SSNs for sale.
Enablement of nation state campaigns
Although Equifax claimed this intrusion was conducted by a criminal threat actor, it is possible that this was a nation state actor. In the event that a nation state actor is responsible for the intrusion, then like the OPM breach, we won’t see the data being monetized in the criminal underground.
The stolen data will be leveraged to enable nation states’ campaigns against their intelligence targets.
Enablement of hacktivist campaigns
If we are going to consider nation state actors, we should also consider hacktivist threat actors and their activities around the stolen data.
If hacktivists were responsible you could expect to see them use the data to target organizations and individuals that run counter to their world views.