12/17/2010
03:36 PM
Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
Commentary

Hacked: A Reformed Victim's Story

What I learned as a hacking victim and how you could prevent something similar from happening to you or a loved one



My MSN account was hacked earlier this month and since it connects to both my Xbox and Zune accounts. those accounts were compromised as well. Happy Thanksgiving to me!

What was particularly frightening is that it appeared the fields in my Xbox account were filled with what looked like Arabic, and I was a bit concerned I was going to be soon contacted by Homeland Security. It took several weeks to unravel the mess, and the hackers did charge about $80 worth of stuff on my account, which was reversed. For their trouble, they effectively had their Xbox systems bricked and locked out of the service.

I was fascinated about their dedication, though, because even after the activity had been caught and the accounts frozen, they were still calling into Microsoft support trying to get access and not realizing I’d be called about the attempt. I learned a few things I will share with you that could prevent this from happening to you, your parents, or kids: As far as I can tell, this was a brute-force attack using identity theft, where the attackers called into Microsoft support multiple times while doing automated password resets and eventually got someone to add their email to the reset process. They may have been able to eventually work out one of my challenge response controls to do this, and I learned a lesson about those. Also, the reason they apparently came after me is that I have one of the high-value gamer tags, and these are apparently highly sought after over the network. Once in my account, they did try to phish me for a PIN number representing themselves as Microsoft support. As you might expect, I’m hard to phish, and this was what alerted me to the attack and made me aware of the compromise as I don't use the accounts daily.

The accounts all had to be frozen, which was kind of problematic because I use them for product testing; given this is the holiday season, I was doing a lot of it. After a huge amount of work by some great people on the Microsoft support and security teams over several weeks, I’m back up and running but I'm also being more careful.

Watch the challenge questions -- things like mother's maiden name are too easily found on the Web now, and even the street you grew up on could be on a Web profile someplace. The Microsoft folks suggested I get creative here and put in phony names only I would know like Hogwort, Butsmallo, or Cramitbower. If I wanted to make it easier to remember, then I could use a key number or an acronym of a product I had named.

But if you disconnect the word from the description and don't talk about it (I didn't actually use any of these names), it is virtually impossible for someone to connect the two items. If they call in to guess, the service professional should quickly know there is a problem. How would they ever tie the name of the street I grew up on to Budweiser, even if they did know me as a kid, for instance?

If you get a phishing call, immediately check your accounts for anything strange. In my case, I waited a couple of days because the call came while I was in the bath and right before a several-day trip and didn't get around to logging into the accounts until I returned. Had I done it right away, recovery would have been faster and less damage likely would have been done. In my own defense, I thought I was just being phished for a PIN number, which I was, and it didn't occur to me that they might have already hacked into my MSN account until later.

All in all, this was a good lesson for me; I'm better protected than most and yet still was successfully hit. If you or someone close to you has something of high value on the Web, or if you've been using simple challenge-response question answers, like your mother's maiden name, it might be time to go in and update your security.

If you are using any of the MSN properties, there are options to tie your account more tightly to your PC and link your cell phone to the password recovery process -- both of which helped me a great deal.

Things are becoming even more hostile out there. Learn from this victim, and don't be the next one.

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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