Phishing for Passwords

This is a true story of something that happened to a Maine citizen, an IT professional, and someone who knew the basic security principles of password protection.

by / April 3, 2009

Used with permission from the Maine Office of Information Technology

This month's security item is an e-mail that was sent to us by a Maine OIT employee. The employee gave permission to reprint the e-mail, but ask that we not reveal the identity of the contributor. This is a true story of something that happened to a Maine citizen, an IT professional, and someone who knew the basic security principles of password protection. It serves as a good lesson for us all that no matter how careful we think we are being, it only takes one small mistake for things to unravel quickly.

Our co-worker's story:

"I think that a lot of people don't take it serious when they are told to use a different password for everything and people like me assume they are really careful and nothing will happen to them."

Often times in my hotmail account I get a "phishing" e-mail that contains a fake PayPal link and since I know better I simply hit forward and send it on to the PayPal security team. On March 9, 2009 I received one, and because I haven't used PayPal since September of last year I didn't read it and just forwarded it to them. On March 10, 2009 I received an e-mail from PayPal stating my account had been changed to limited access in the subject line so I read it and it was limited because they believed a third party had accessed my account. They didn't state in the e-mail that there had been any transactions so I shrugged it off and figured I'd log into my PayPal and cancel the account as I don't use it anymore. To my surprise when I logged in there was a transaction there for over 400 GBP which translated into $645.59 USD. In addition, the hacker had changed my address to an address in Lithuania. I then logged into my bank account and the money was gone. I obviously was very upset as I am a single income supporting my family and things are tight (as they are for everyone). I called my bank and filed a claim and called PayPal and did the same thing.

I've since received credit from my bank though the claim is still open but I know that it will be resolved in another week once the investigation is complete. We have figured out this happened because when I recently changed my hotmail password I apparently used the same password I had for PayPal. At the time I didn't even think about it because I hadn't used PayPal for so long. When either I or my fiancé accessed the e-mail from some place other than home, the hotmail account was jeopardized by either key-logging or some other method. They then tried the password for all the accounts I had listed in a folder in my email and gained access. Since this incident I have changed passwords for everything and kept them each unique. I honestly believed that as careful as I am this would never happen to me but it did. Aside from the stress and dealing with getting it cleared up (affidavits, countless long phone calls, new bank account, checks, debit cards, new e-mail address, notifying all accounts of new e-mail, etc.) the whole situation leaves one feeling very violated. It is not something I want to experience again.

Change passwords often, keep them each unique. Always monitor your accounts! Be very cautious about where you are accessing e-mail and financial accounts from. Computers with public access are a high risk.

"I hope this helps someone!"

Mark Kemmerle Staff Writer, Maine OIT