When it comes to reporting on breaches involving customer accounts at major brands, the news media overall deserves an F-minus. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear from readers about a breathless story proclaiming that yet another household brand name company has been hacked. Upon closer inspection, the stories usually are based on little more than anecdotal evidence from customers who had their online loyalty or points accounts hijacked and then drained of value.
The latest example of this came last week from a story that was responsibly reported by Bob Sullivan, a former MSNBC journalist who’s since struck out on his own. Sullivan spoke with multiple consumers who’d seen their Starbucks card balances emptied and then topped up again.
Those customers had all chosen to tie their debit accounts to their Starbucks cards and mobile phones. Sullivan allowed in his story one logical explanation for the activity: These consumers had re-used their Starbucks account password at another site that got hacked, and attackers simply tried those account credentials en masse at other popular sites — knowing that a fair number of consumers use the same email address and password across multiple sites.
Following up on Sullivan’s story, the media pounced, suggesting that Starbucks had been compromised. In a written statement, Starbucks denied the unauthorized activity was the result of a hack or intrusion into its servers or mobile applications.
“Occasionally, Starbucks receives reports from customers of unauthorized activity on their online account,” the company wrote. “This is primarily caused when criminals obtain reused names and passwords from other sites and attempt to apply that information to Starbucks. To protect their security, customers are encouraged to use different user names and passwords for different sites, especially those that keep financial information.”
In most cases, a flurry of fraudulent account activity targeting a major brand is preceded by postings on noob-friendly hacker forums about large numbers of compromised accounts for sale, and the publication of teachable “methods” for extracting value from said hacked accounts.
Unsurprisingly, we saw large numbers of compromised Starbucks accounts for sale in the days leading up to the initial story about the Starbucks fraud, as well as the usual “methods” explaining to clueless ne’er-do-wells about how to perpetrate fraud against hacked accounts. Here’s another noob-friendly thread explaining how to cash out compromised Subway accounts; how long until we read media reports shouting that Subway has been hacked?
To be sure, password re-use is a major problem, and it’s a core driver of fraud like this. Also, companies like Starbucks, Hilton Honors, Starwood and others certainly could be doing more — such as offering customers two-step authentication — to protect accounts. Indeed, as these recurring episodes show, affected brands take an image hit when customers have their accounts hijacked through password re-use, because the story inevitably devolves into allegations of a data breach at the brand involved.
But it works both ways: consumers who re-use passwords for sites holding their payment data are asking for trouble, and will get it eventually.
For helpful hints on picking strong passwords (or outsourcing that to third-party software and/or services), check out this primer. For further reading about how penny-ante punks exploit password re-use and trick media outlets into falsely reporting breaches, see How to Tell Data Leaks from Publicity Stunts.