Equifax says 143m Americans’ social security numbers exposed in hack

Credit monitoring company Equifax says a breach exposed the social security numbers and other data of about 143 million Americans.

After discovering the breach, but before notifying the public, three Equifax senior executives sold shares in the company worth almost $1.8m. Since the public announcement, the company’s share price has tumbled.

The Atlanta-based company said Thursday that “criminals” exploited a US website application to access files between mid-May and July of this year.

It said consumers’ names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers were exposed. Credit card numbers for about 209,000 US consumers were also accessed.

“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do,” said the company’s chairman and CEO Richard Smith. “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data, and we are conducting a thorough review of our overall security operations.”

The company said hackers also accessed some “limited personal information” from British and Canadian residents.

Equifax said it doesn’t believe that any consumers from other countries were affected.

Such sensitive information can be enough for crooks to hijack people’s identities, potentially wreaking havoc on the victims’ lives.

Financial institutions, landlords and other businesses draw on data from credit monitoring companies like Equifax to verify people’s identity and ensure they are suitable for leases and loans. This breach has given cybercriminals a treasure trove of data to assume the identities of those affected and carry out fraudulent transactions in their name.

“On a scale of one to 10, this is a 10 in terms of potential identity theft,” said Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. “Credit bureaus keep so much data about us that affects almost everything we do.”

Ryan Kalember, from cybersecurity company Proofpoint said: “This has really called into question the entire model of how we authenticate ourselves to financial institutions. The fact that we still use things like mother’s maiden name, social security number and date of birth is ridiculous.”

The breach could also undermine the integrity of the information stockpiled by two other major credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, since they hold virtually all the data that Equifax does, Litan said.

Equifax discovered the hack 29 July, but waited until Thursday to warn consumers. In the interim, as first reported by Bloomberg, chief financial officer John Gamble sold shares worth $946,374 and president of US information solutions Joseph Loughran exercised options to sell stock worth $584,099. President of workforce solutions Rodolfo Ploder also sold stock worth $250,458.

Ines Gutzmer, head of corporate communications for Equifax, said: “The three executives who sold a small percentage of their Equifax shares on Tuesday, August 1, and Wednesday, August 2, had no knowledge that an intrusion had occurred at the time they sold their shares.”

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