Equifax confirms it suffered a separate data breach in March

Another 2.5 million Americans may have been affected by the Equifax breach

Following the massive data breach that Equifax disclosed to the public in early September, news of a second, earlier attack at the credit agency has emerged. Although originally just a rumor from anonymous sources, on September 19, Equifax confirmed the secondary hack, which took place in March, though the firm denied it had anything to do with the larger hack. Adding insult to injury, Equifax has now inadvertently contributed to a phishing campaign by sending its customers to a phishing site rather than its own breach notification portal.

The chain of events so far

As originally reported by the New York Times, the first cyberattack we learned about occurred sometime between the middle of May 2017 and July 29 when the intrusion was discovered. What makes the Equifax attack particularly troublesome is the company’s status as a central clearinghouse for sensitive credit-related information including social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and other data that can be used in a variety of ways to harm those affected.

The earlier data breach at Equifax is said to have taken place in March and though Equifax claims that this earlier hack had nothing to do with the hack that took place later in the year, some anonymous sources have said otherwise. In both cases, however, Equifax took on the services of digital security company Mandiant to investigate.

On October 2, Equifax announced that Mandiant had completed its forensic investigation regarding the September 7 breach, and that an additional 2.5 million Americans may have been impacted by the hack. This brings the total number of folks affected to 145.5 million. However, Mandiant did not find any further evidence of new hacking activity. Furthermore, it would appear that the impact of the breach did not extend beyond North America — about 8,000 Canadians (not 100,000 as previously thought) may have been affected as well.

“I was advised Sunday that the analysis of the number of consumers potentially impacted by the cybersecurity incident has been completed, and I directed that the results be promptly released,” newly appointed interim CEO, Paulino do Rego Barros, Jr. said. “Our priorities are transparency and improving support for consumers. I will continue to monitor our progress on a daily basis.”

In written testimony, former CEO Richard Smith told the Energy and Commerce Committee, “It appears that the breach occurred because of both human error and technology failures.”

Recently, adding insult to injury, the Equifax Twitter account recently sent customers to the site “securityequifax2017.com,” a bogus site that clearly plays off the real site’s web address: equifaxsecurity2017.com. The tweet, naturally, has since been removed, but this isn’t the first time the Equifax has sent people to the phishing site. Note that Google Chrome now flags the fake site as deceptive.

equifax data breach affects 143 million americans deceptive site
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

What data was stolen?

Although at this point it appears unlikely that any more personal information of Equifax customers was stolen in the original hack, it raises serious questions about the firm’s response. It’s possible that the law required Equifax to reveal information about it far sooner than the firm did and this development shines an even harsher light on some of the suspicious stock sales made by Equifax executives in August.

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into the stock sales, according to Bloomberg sources.

While the Equifax breaches aren’t the largest in terms of the number of victims — Yahoo’s attacks involved more people, and the HBO one dumped more spoilers — it’s of concern because of the kind of personal information that was stolen. Examples of sensitive information include 209,000 credit card numbers, personal information relating to credit disputes for 182,000 victims, and data that could be further used to access medical histories, bank accounts, and more.

On September 15, Equifax released more information about the hack, and also noted that two senior executives — the Chief Information Officer and Chief Security Officer were “retiring.” Given recent events, however, there is likely more to the story than mere retirement. Equifax further revealed that its internal investigation is still ongoing and that the company “continues to work closely with the FBI in its investigation.” Thus far, it’s been revealed that Equifax first noticed suspicious activity on July 29, 2017, but waited until August 2 to contact a cybersecurity firm and conduct a “comprehensive forensic review.”

As Pamela Dixon, executive director for the nonprofit research group World Privacy Forum, said in a statement that “This is about as bad as it gets. If you have a credit report, chances are you may be in this breach. The chances are much better than 50 percent.”

What’s to be done about it?

According to a press release issued by the office of Senator Mark Warner (D. Virginia), the Equifax attack raises important questions about the role of government in responding to the ongoing threat to personal information.

“While many have perhaps become accustomed to hearing of a new data breach every few weeks, the scope of this breach – involving Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and credit card numbers of nearly half the U.S. population – raises serious questions about whether Congress should not only create a uniform data breach notification standard, but also whether Congress needs to rethink data protection policies, so that enterprises such as Equifax have fewer incentives to collect large, centralized sets of highly sensitive data like SSNs and credit card information on millions of Americans.”

In calling such attacks “a real threat to the economic security of Americans,” it’s likely that Warren and other government officials will push for legislation creating stronger consumer protections from data theft. Warner has been working on developing just that sort of legislation, and that’s likely to accelerate.

Equifax will also be mailing written notices to all potentially impacted U.S. consumers, and the online tool folks can use to determine their risk has also been updated.

“I want to apologize again to all impacted consumers. As this important phase of our work is now completed, we continue to take numerous steps to review and enhance our cybersecurity practices. We also continue to work closely with our internal team and outside advisors to implement and accelerate long-term security improvements,” Barros added in early October.

Go to equifaxsecurity2017.com to learn more about the attack, find out if you’re affected, and enroll in free identity theft protection and file monitoring services.

Updated: Equifax has learned that an additional 2.5 million Americans may have been affected by the breach.