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The Resource Center Identity Theft & Protection The Resource Center | article

What Happens to Stolen Identity Information?

The information super highway moves fast once data is exposed.

The information super highway moves fast once data is exposed.

We have all heard about the handful of massive data breaches that have occurred over the past year, from Sony and Anthem to Target and Home Depot. Many of us might even have been victims of those breaches. But what isn’t always clear to the general public is what happens to sensitive information after it falls into the hands of hackers. Do cyber thieves collect medical records, Social Security numbers and credit card information to fund their Amazon addiction? Do they share data with their friends? Do they have a boss they have to report to with their latest hacking success?

BitGlass, a California-based security broker and data protection company, recently conducted an experiment to answer these questions. Researchers at the company decided to find out what happened to sensitive information once it had been stolen. The company was inspired by the Morgan Stanley breach story, where a financial advisor employed by the company allegedly stole corporate information and added it to a file-sharing website called Pastebin. BitGlass decided to replicate that breach for its experiment.

The research team first wrote a program that generated fictitious employee names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, addresses, phone numbers and more, creating, in essence, a number of fake identities. These 1,568 fake employee credentials were inserted into an Excel spreadsheet, which was then duplicated and each file named something different, to better bait cyber thieves. Then a unique watermark was applied to each of the documents to ensure that whenever it was opened, no matter where it was in the world, the BitGlass research team would be notified. The watermark would collect the user’s IP address, geographic location and access device type, and transmit that information back to BitGlass.

Finally the researchers took the Excel spreadsheets to the criminals by uploading them to a number of anonymous dark web sites. The Dark Web is an area of the internet that, so far, has not been indexed by Google or other search engines, and therefore cannot be easily found, making it the perfect site to conduct illegal activities. It’s thought to be 500 times larger than the surface internet.

For some time there was very little activity on the files, with only about 200 views gained during the first week. However, as soon as more and more people began to take the bait, the files began to travel at staggering speeds. After 12 days, the files had been opened and read at least 1,081 times by people in 22 different countries on five continents. According to BitGlass that’s probably only the “tip of the iceberg.” Since people using the dark web use IP masking techniques it is almost impossible to track every time the file opened. The team did discover, however, that most of the action done on the file was probably the responsibility of organized groups, some of whom were situated in Russia and Nigeria.

For the general public the implications of this study are serious. Once information has been stolen it spreads quickly and is difficult to track. Even if, like BitGlass, you can find out where the information is, finding the human beings behind their use is impossible, due to virtual security measures like IP masking. This means that it is essential that individuals take steps to protect their data before breaches or identity theft occurs. Here are a few tips:

  • If you feel that your information might be at risk, contact the companies you do business with and ask them what they are doing to ensure your information is secure.
  • Make sure you use complex and unique passwords on your online accounts.
  • Regularly check your credit reports for certain activity that might indicate identity theft. It’s also a good idea to sign up for a credit monitoring service that can help you to perform this task.

Often the only thing standing between your information and a cyber thief is the protection you put up. Don’t be caught slacking. Make sure you are taking all possible steps to protect your data from identity theft.