In recent days, you may have seen or heard one of the many media reports of the posting of detailed personal information about many well-known people on a crudely designed website that is hosted by a Russian Web-hosting company.
More than 30 politicians and celebrities have been "doxed," as it is called. Some have had personal information — Social Security numbers, current addresses and phone numbers — posted, and others have had this information plus their actual credit reports posted on this website.
Among those so violated include: William "Bill" Henry Gates III, singer R. Kelly, Donald Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, disgraced and imprisoned former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Kanye West, Tiger Woods, reality-show mom Kris Jenner, Jay-Z and Mel Gibson, U.S. Marshals Service director Stacia Hylton, Mitt Romney, Al Gore, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Paris Hilton, Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
It is titillating to learn how many credit cards Gates reportedly has (a Discover card, two Wells Fargo Mastercards, a Visa card also issued by Wells Fargo — all with spending limits in the low six figures — and two American Express cards — one with no spending limit that had a high balance of $431,622 and was paid off with no past due). But more importantly, this incident is certainly a cautionary tale showing some major gaps in the current credit reporting system that poses dangers not only for the famous but for you and me.
How did this happen? Based on some tweets sent from accounts linked to this Russian website, some are guessing that very basic personal information on the individuals — name, address, SSNs, and phone numbers — were purchased from one of a number of vendors that operate in the black market, underground Internet world.
The three agencies confirmed to Bloomberg News that reports had recently been run on several of the exposed "high-profile individuals."
Experian®, Equifax® and TransUnion®, the three biggest U.S. credit-reporting companies, said they uncovered cases where hackers gained illegal, unauthorized access to users' information.
Bloomberg reported that Equifax said credit reports on four celebrities were compromised through its service. The documents online show credit reports of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; the rapper Jay-Z; former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
"We are aware of recent media reports pertaining to unauthorized access to files belonging to high-profile individuals," Tim Klein, a spokesman for Equifax, wrote in an emailed statement sent to Bloomberg. "Equifax can confirm that fraudulent and unauthorized access to four consumer credit reports has occurred."
TransUnion said those responsible used "considerable amounts" of personal information, including Social Security numbers, to impersonate victims and access their credit history.
Paris Hilton's credit report appeared to be from Experian, Bloomberg said.
All this shows the vulnerability of the credit-reporting companies. In the past they have admitted being hacked, usually by persons who take over the computers of banks, auto dealers or other granters of credit and enter through the system as if they are regular customers of the credit reporting agencies.
The motive in the current case of the purloined information of notables is not known. Both the Secret Service and the FBI have opened investigations. Was this simply a prank, was it an attempt by the hackers to show they could do it, or has this information been used for financial gain?
Whatever the reason, it shows how vulnerable we all are, and it shows why we have to guard our Social Security number so closely. In all these cases it appears that Social Security numbers were the key to gaining all the rest of the personal data. That is a lesson we all need to take to heart.