I am starting to hear stories from friends in the Phoenix area more and more about identity theft and account hijacking. Two weeks ago we got a phone call from a friend in the wee hours of the morning. She called to ask if we knew if a mutual friend, we’ll call her ‘Stacy’ for the purpose of this post, was in England. Our friend had received an email from Stacy stating she was in trouble and asking for money. We know Stacy pretty well and we assured out friend that she was not in England and was certainly not requesting $2000.00 be wired to her. Seems that everyone Stacy knew received a similar email claiming distress and requesting significant sums of money.

Later in the afternoon we called Stacy and verified that she had in fact not been to England and was not in distress. But she had found that her Yahoo! account had been hijacked and she was getting calls from friends and family all morning who had received the same request. She admittedly had a very weak password, not unlike most of the people we know, and have never even thought someone would be interested in gaining access to the account. We spoke with Stacy again today, and jokingly asked her how much money she has made. She did not find this very funny because, after a dozen or so hours on the phone with the overseas ‘technical’ support , she still has not been able to restore her account nor stop the emails. It seems that the first thing the hijackers did was change the account verification questions as well as the password, both locking Stacy out of the account and removing any way for her to restore it. The funny part of this is the phone calls Stacy has had with the support team, which go pretty much like this:

Stacy: “Hi, my email account has been taken over and they are sending out emails under my name requesting money.”
Support: “OK, just go in and reset your password. I will email you a change password request.”
Stacy: “I can’t do that. They changed the password so I cannot get email from this account. I am locked out.”
Support: “OK Stacy, we will just need to ask you a few questions to restore your account … Can you tell us where you went on your honeymoon?”
Stacy: “Yes, I honeymooned in Phoenix.”
Support: “I am sorry, that is not the answer we have.”
Stacy: “Of course not. They changed the information. That is why I am calling you.”
Support: “Would you like another guess?”
Stacy: “What?”
Support: “I asked would you like another guess on where you spent your honeymoon?”
Stacy: “I don’t need to guess, I was there. I honeymooned in Phoenix. Whatever answer you have is wrong because ….”
Support: “I am sorry, that is not correct.”

And so it goes. Like a bad game of “Who’s on First?”. How to prove you are really you, in a virtual environment, is a really hard security problem to solve. More often than not companies want to deal with our virtual images and identities rather than our real selves, and automate as much as they can to cut costs and raise profits. If you need something out of the ordinary fixed, it is often far easier to simply abandon the troubled account and start over again. At least you can do that with a Yahoo! email account. You bank account is another matter entirely. But we can do a lot better than a single (weak) password being the keys to the kingdom. This is a subject I would not normally even blog about except a) I found the dialog funny and b) it is becoming so common I think think we periodically need a reminder that if you are using a weak password on any account you care about, change it now! If you have two-factor authentication at your disposal, use it!