Largest ever ID theft operation busted

August 5, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The largest identity theft operation ever in this country is busted.

The international conspiracy hacked into major American retail store computers and stole millions of customers' debit and credit card numbers. This was a three-year undercover investigation in which the San Jose Secret Service Office was involved in. It is still an ongoing investigation so there is quite a bit that they cannot tell us, including whether there may be more indictments on the way in addition to the 11 that were unsealed on Tuesday.

The identity thieves are accused of stealing 40 million debit and credit card numbers from eight major U.S. retailers including Barnes and Noble, TJ Maxx, DSW Shoe Stores and Office Max.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says they did it by what is known as "wardriving." The thieves literally drove by the stores and got access to their computer systems through an unprotected wireless network. The card numbers were then sold or used around the world.

"At least some of what was done was to download the information, take the cards and the PIN numbers and passwords and then use them to download money from the ATM, essentially making it into a piggy bank," says Chertoff.

Chertoff was in the Silicon Valley, meeting with high-tech leaders to talk about preventing this kind of crime.

"This is going to be a milestone moment I think in which people not only in the retail business, but in the security business, will be taking a hard look at what can be done to further strengthen network security."

We spoke with Philip Zimmermann who is the creator of Pretty Good Privacy, an e-mail encryption software package. He is also a fellow at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. He says "a lot of companies don't have competent people that understand data security."

Zimmerman says the technology is there to protect sensitive information, but it is not always used well or at all.

"There is no such thing as 100 percent security, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hand and say 'what's the use.' We can get a long way by applying the appropriate technologies," says Zimmermann.

We did get written response from TJX Corporation, which owns TJ Maxx and Barnes and Noble. They basically said that their customers' safety and privacy is of their upmost importance and they are constantly updating their security systems and that it is safe to shop at their stores.

For more information on how you can protect yourself from identify thieves and scams, click here.


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