New York Times
Hackers posing as employees of the Ford Motor Credit Company have in recent months harvested a trove of 13,000 credit reports - a virtual one-stop shop for fraud and identity theft - with data on consumers in affluent neighborhoods across the country.
The company said in a letter to the victims that computer intruders used an authorization code from Ford Credit to get the credit reports from Experian, one of three major reporting agencies.
"I've never seen anything of this size," a spokesman for Experian, Donald Girard, said. "Privacy is the hallmark of our business. We're extraordinarily concerned about the privacy issue here, and the trust factor."
The inquiries gave the intruders access to each victim's personal and financial information, including address, Social Security number, bank and credit card accounts and ratings of creditworthiness, which can be used to identify the best targets.
"This is not just a credit card number; this is the whole kazoo," said Richard Power, the editorial director for the Computer Security Institute, an industry trade group. A criminal could use the data to make credit card charges or even open bank and credit card accounts in the victim's name.
Thefts of credit records, Mr. Power said, are far more common than is reported. "The unique thing about this one," he said, "is that it has surfaced." The theft was first reported yesterday by The Boston Globe and The Detroit News.
Statistics on identity theft are hard to come by, with estimates ranging as high as 700,000 cases a year. Betsy Broder, the assistant director for planning and information of the Federal Trade Commission, said the commission received 86,000 complaints of identity theft last year.
Representatives of Ford Credit said they did not know how the hackers acquired the code, which was used by the company's office in Grand Rapids, Mich. The intruders focused on addresses in affluent neighborhoods, often in numeric sequence, said Rich Van Leeuwen, executive vice president at Ford Credit.
The company said it had sent letters via certified mail to all 13,000 people, urging them to contact Experian and the two other credit reporting giants, Equifax and TransUnion, and to report any evidence of abuse to the F.B.I.
The company has also worked with Experian to set up a phone line to let victims get their credit reports and help them resolve discrepancies.
Neither Ford Credit nor Experian has determined how many people have reported fraudulent charges or other problems. Mr. Girard said that Experian had received 2,700 calls since the letters started going out this month. Although the unauthorized inquiries began in April 2001, Ford first heard about the problem in February, Mr. Van Leeuwen said. Only 400 of the 13,000 victims were customers of Ford Credit, he said.
Dawn M. Clenney, a special agent at the F.B.I. office in Detroit, said that she could not comment, except to say, "We're on the case."
Mr. Girard, the Experian spokesman, said the company would work with the F.B.I. to catch and prosecute the intruders. "It just shows that today, even big companies can be victimized," he said. "it's a never-ending struggle against the bad guys."