Software and Technology

A few weeks back, I did a post about having our personal data hacked.

What if the hacker was you?

Yes you — the attorney, the employer, or someone else who has confidential information.

I was recently reviewing the online court file of an employment case in federal court for a recent blog post.  It’s available for anyone to see.

(You might be asking, Why? Because it’s always interesting to see other filings and the way cases turn out. Ok, it’s always interesting TO ME at least….).

In looking over some of the court-filed documents, I came across the college transcript of the employee/plaintiff.  It was filed by the attorney as evidence in the case.

Some newer transcripts don’t have some confidential information. But this college transcript was old school: It still contained the Social Security number of the employee AND his date of birth.

And just like that, the attorney has opened up the employee to hacking.

In case you are wondering, yes, there are rules in federal court about this. For example, Local Rule 5(e)8 requires that a party filing a document that will become publicly available shall redact Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, dates of birth and names of minor children.

Attorneys who represent employers should beware that the same rule applies to filings you submit as well.

Beyond court rules, employers have an independent legal obligations to protect Social Security numbers of its employees as well.

And so, in this age of data, it’s up to us all — attorneys and employers — to take the responsibility of protecting data seriously.

You don’t want to hack your own client or employee.

“Technology is a wonderful thing but it’s scary when it’s weaponized against you.”

The first sign that my wife’s identity and my own were under attack came innocently enough.

It was an e-mail alert that we get from time to time from Comcast, so innocent that I almost ignored it.  But it said our password had been changed.  When we tried to log-in to download e-mail, the system indicated the password was incorrect.

“That’s weird”, we thought.

I mean, we have two factor authentication on it so that if someone DOES try to change the password, shouldn’t they need a code?

So I called Comcast and was assured repeated that our password wasn’t changed and our account was not compromised.

They said it was a phishing exercise and the e-mails were fake too. As for the account access, they said that someone may have just tried to access it but they were unsuccessful.

Comcast easily reset the password for me and since two factor authentication wasn’t invoked, it seemed like something unusual but nothing beyond that.

The second attack happened the same way.  This time, we knew something was most definitely wrong.

The war over our identities was now on, though I didn’t realize at the time how outmatched we were in our weaponry.

We were able to regain control of the account in just a few minutes with resetting the password on my side (two can play that game, so I thought).

And then I placed another call to Comcast for help.

After an hour on the phone and a reset password and security question, I was told again that there’s nothing otherwise suspicious in my account but they’ll keep “looking”.  No other outward sign of hacking.

Still, our credit cards were quiet and we changed some more passwords just in case.  What were they after?

The hacker’s next salvo though had already been launched and was operating secretly.

Later that evening, I received a notice from UPS that night that we had a package coming from Amazon, but, well, let’s just say that we are frequent Prime users and that didn’t raise any suspicions to be getting another one from them.

But by mid-morning the next day, still yet another e-mail arrived. Again, from UPS, but this time saying that the package we were expecting would be held at the Watertown customer care center “at the customer’s request”.

(Why, you might ask, is UPS sending me e-mails? It turns out, I set up an alert with UPS to send me an a separate e-mail account anytime a package for our hours is scheduled for delivery. As it turns out, this last countermeasure helped stem the tide, though I didn’t know it at the time)

Still, when we searched our Amazon account for the package, nothing showed up.  There was a package from over the summer that never turned up and showed it was “out for delivery”. Could that be it? Or was it a gift?

As “luck” happens, I was driving past the Watertown care center by late afternoon and decided to swing by.  A big box awaited.  My curiosity was piqued – What’s In The Box?

I open it up at the UPS facility.

Not one, but TWO high-end MacBook Pros.

Wow.  Was not expecting THAT.  Or perhaps I was.

A call to the local Watertown police was met with a response of a department that has seen one too many of these — “you should just contact your hometown police”.

A call to Amazon revealed that our account had been accessed, an Amazon store card opened up, and the purchase “hidden” as if it were a “gift” to ourselves that we didn’t want spoiled before its arrival.  Amazon set up for the computers to be returned at no charge and the card wiped clean.

At least we could claim victory in stopping the shipment, right?

Well, as we were also told by police later, sometimes hackers just send something to a customer care center and don’t pick it up just to see if the hacked worked.  If it does, then the sky’s the limit on the next go around.

But still, were we done? Had we hacked the hackers by seeing this UPS alert we weren’t suppose to see?

Well, it turns out the hackers had more tricks up their sleeve.

Upon a third call to Comcast, the security representative reviewed our account still further and he found three things:

  1. The hacker set up an “e-mail forwarding” so that a copy of EVERY single e-mail received would also be sent to the hacker.  Yes, even the ones we were sending to each other about the hacker were being read too.
  2. The hacker also set up “selective call forwarding”, an option I didn’t even know existed. Apparently, you can have up to a dozen phone numbers you choose get directly forwarded to another phone number.  As it turns out, the hacker knew the numbers that Amazon and the card verification service would call on and conveniently forwarded those calls directly to his own mobile number on a burner phone.
  3. Looking at phone logs, we could actually see that the hacker had taken a call from Amazon.  A-ha.

All done, right?

Well no. I continued to scour the account on my phone and found yet another devious hack in my “options”. The hacker had set up a series of filters (which didn’t have a title, so they showed up as “”) that forwarded e-mails from Amazon and Amazon’s card carrier directly to the hacker’s e-mail.  Delete, delete, delete.

Since then, police have been contacted. The Amazon card cancelled and account locked for a few days. Package returned. Fraud alerts placed. ID protection re-upped. Passwords being changed. Sleep lost.

And replaced with a sort of paranoia about what else is lurking.

While we can claim victory in preventing the MacBook Pros from falling into criminal hands, at what cost? The damage is already done. We may have foiled the crime, but the identity is compromised and we now need to be vigilant for other account pop-ups. The victory feels empty.

We have to instead hope the hacker will lose interest, knowing that we know about the scam and have alerted police.

This feeling of hopelessness doesn’t have to be that way.

Indeed, the irony of the situation isn’t lost on me. I’m part of my firm’s Privacy and Data Security Team and routinely give others advice with how to protect themselves.

And yet, even with the steps we took, we still couldn’t stop the attack. Here is where government and businesses have a role to play in helping to protect our identities.

For example, everytime I called Comcast to complain, I had to “verify” our info; in doing so, I had to provide the last four of her social security number and our address — the very information we KNEW was already compromised.

We have to do more. Here are five small steps to start:

  1. Congress should hold hearings to hear from security professionals about the best ways stores and utilities can protect customer information.  And then work with businesses to create a common standard.  Our current system is broken.  Health care information is treated as important; our identities need to be treated with similar care.
  2. Businesses that have sensitive customer information should offer real two-factor authentication, not offer work arounds that just open up a loophole. In Comcast’s case, resetting the password allows you to bypass the two factor authentication by answering a simple “security” question.
  3. Password management is broken.  Yes, I can set up some password managers, but using multiple devices and computers makes it difficult to have consistency.  Too many of us need to use similar passwords on websites because there is no one common log-in system. A new type of authentication system might be a start (though I acknowledge it might also then create a target for hacking too — see Equifax).
  4. After a hack, the government ought to mandate easy, free tools that people can use to help clean up their own identities. If we can get a free credit report once a year, can’t the government mandate that credit agencies assist you in cleaning up your identity for free?
  5. The police are woefully understaffed to deal with an international problem.  The only means that an ordinary person can use is their local police, but even they admit that they’re still playing catch up.  More consistent training and better tools for our police can at least start to make a dent on this.

Which gets me back to the first sentence here — which was a comment a friend shared with me upon learning of the hacking.

“Technology is a wonderful thing but it’s scary when it’s weaponized against you.”

Yes, my friend. It definitely is.