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12/12/2008
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Poor Computer Security Putting Immigrant Data At Risk

Vulnerabilities are common where money transfers, check cashing, bill payment, travel services, auto insurance, or notary services are provided, a research firm found.

About 60% of the computers at multiservice businesses that serve the immigrant community are actively infected with malware, according to a study released on Thursday by Panda Security.

This puts customers at considerable risk of identity theft and money transfer interception.

About 30% of the computers at these businesses had outdated antivirus software.

Panda's findings come following two years of research into the cybersecurity practices at 300 independently owned and operated multiservice businesses in the Los Angeles and Las Vegas metropolitan areas.

The study focused on businesses in predominately Latino neighborhoods. Eighty-five percent were single locations, with the remainder operating from two to eight branches. About 1,500 PCs total were covered by the study.

Multiservice businesses typically offer money transfers, income tax payment, check cashing, bill payment, travel services, auto insurance, notary services, and/or telephone calling card sales. They're commonly used by immigrants to remit funds to Mexico and other countries.

There are some 66,000 comparable businesses in the United States, Panda claims.

"The employees [at these businesses] are frequently minimum wage young adults who spend time chatting, using peer to peer networks and visiting chat sites on the very same computers sending sensitive data," Panda's report explains. "Periodic spyware infections which stop the ability to perform transactions are often viewed as a business expense. Panda Security views this combination of poor maintenance, low security consciousness and end user behavior as a disaster waiting to happen."

A spokesperson for the company said that the study focused on infection rates rather than actual cases of fraud and thus had no examples of actual accounts being compromised. Even so, the gap between risk and compromise isn't large enough that this issue can be ignored. There's no shortage of examples of data and monetary loss arising from credential theft.

The Panda study points out that the presence of a key-logging Trojan on a PC used to initiate a money transfer through an online site could provide an attacker with all the necessary information to intercept and collect the transferred funds.

While one might prefer to believe that banks would prevent anyone but the designated recipient from collecting transferred funds, reality in countries like Mexico is not constrained by such a rosy view of the world.

"The going rate for a false government identification was USD$100, and false birth certificates cost USD$50," the Panda report states. "Due to advanced dye sublimation card printing technologies and corrupt government employees, high quality false documents made with real substrate can be available in mere minutes. In one popular wire transfer service that makes wire pickup available in a large Mexican national bank the beneficiary does not need to pick up the remittance at the designated branch."

In short, money transfers to such countries can be stolen without substantial difficulty if they begin on a compromised computer.

Panda recommends that multiservice businesses beef up their cybersecurity and advises those interested in transferring money to use FDIC-accredited banks or Western Union, which should have higher security standards. Its report can be obtained by sending an e-mail to: CriticalAlert@us.pandasecurity.com.

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