Experian

Confessions of an ID Theft Kingpin, Part I

At the height of his cybercriminal career, the hacker known as “Hieupc” was earning $125,000 a month running a bustling identity theft service that siphoned consumer dossiers from some of the world’s top data brokers. That is, until his greed and ambition played straight into an elaborate snare set by the U.S. Secret Service. Now, after more than seven years in prison Hieupc is back in his home country and hoping to convince other would-be cybercrooks to use their computer skills for good.

Hieu Minh Ngo, in his teens.

For several years beginning around 2010, a lone teenager in Vietnam named Hieu Minh Ngo ran one of the Internet’s most profitable and popular services for selling “fullz,” stolen identity records that included a consumer’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and email and physical address.

Ngo got his treasure trove of consumer data by hacking and social engineering his way into a string of major data brokers. By the time the Secret Service caught up with him in 2013, he’d made over $3 million selling fullz data to identity thieves and organized crime rings operating throughout the United States.

Matt O’Neill is the Secret Service agent who in February 2013 successfully executed a scheme to lure Ngo out of Vietnam and into Guam, where the young hacker was arrested and sent to the mainland U.S. to face prosecution. O’Neill now heads the agency’s Global Investigative Operations Center, which supports investigations into transnational organized criminal groups.

O’Neill said he opened the investigation into Ngo’s identity theft business after reading about it in a 2011 KrebsOnSecurity story, “How Much is Your Identity Worth?” According to O’Neill, what’s remarkable about Ngo is that to this day his name is virtually unknown among the pantheon of infamous convicted cybercriminals, the majority of whom were busted for trafficking in huge quantities of stolen credit cards.

Ngo’s businesses enabled an entire generation of cybercriminals to commit an estimated $1 billion worth of new account fraud, and to sully the credit histories of countless Americans in the process.

“I don’t know of any other cybercriminal who has caused more material financial harm to more Americans than Ngo,” O’Neill told KrebsOnSecurity. “He was selling the personal information on more than 200 million Americans and allowing anyone to buy it for pennies apiece.”

Freshly released from the U.S. prison system and deported back to Vietnam, Ngo is currently finishing up a mandatory three-week COVID-19 quarantine at a government-run facility. He contacted KrebsOnSecurity from inside this facility with the stated aim of telling his little-known story, and to warn others away from following in his footsteps.

BEGINNINGS

Ten years ago, then 19-year-old hacker Ngo was a regular on the Vietnamese-language computer hacking forums. Ngo says he came from a middle-class family that owned an electronics store, and that his parents bought him a computer when he was around 12 years old. From then on out, he was hooked.

In his late teens, he traveled to New Zealand to study English at a university there. By that time, he was already an administrator of several dark web hacker forums, and between his studies he discovered a vulnerability in the school’s network that exposed payment card data.

“I did contact the IT technician there to fix it, but nobody cared so I hacked the whole system,” Ngo recalled. “Then I used the same vulnerability to hack other websites. I was stealing lots of credit cards.”

Ngo said he decided to use the card data to buy concert and event tickets from Ticketmaster, and then sell the tickets at a New Zealand auction site called TradeMe. The university later learned of the intrusion and Ngo’s role in it, and the Auckland police got involved. Ngo’s travel visa was not renewed after his first semester ended, and in retribution he attacked the university’s site, shutting it down for at least two days.

Ngo said he started taking classes again back in Vietnam, but soon found he was spending most of his time on cybercrime forums.

“I went from hacking for fun to hacking for profits when I saw how easy it was to make money stealing customer databases,” Ngo said. “I was hanging out with some of my friends from the underground forums and we talked about planning a new criminal activity.”

“My friends said doing credit cards and bank information is very dangerous, so I started thinking about selling identities,” Ngo continued. “At first I thought well, it’s just information, maybe it’s not that bad because it’s not related to bank accounts directly. But I was wrong, and the money I started making very fast just blinded me to a lot of things.”

MICROBILT

His first big target was a consumer credit reporting company in New Jersey called MicroBilt.

“I was hacking into their platform and stealing their customer database so I could use their customer logins to access their [consumer] databases,” Ngo said. “I was in their systems for almost a year without them knowing.”

Very soon after gaining access to MicroBilt, Ngo says, he stood up Superget[.]info, a website that advertised the sale of individual consumer records. Ngo said initially his service was quite manual, requiring customers to request specific states or consumers they wanted information on, and he would conduct the lookups by hand.

Ngo’s former identity theft service, superget[.]info

“I was trying to get more records at once, but the speed of our Internet in Vietnam then was very slow,” Ngo recalled. “I couldn’t download it because the database was so huge. So I just manually search for whoever need identities.”

But Ngo would soon work out how to use more powerful servers in the United States to automate the collection of larger amounts of consumer data from MicroBilt’s systems, and from other data brokers. As I wrote of Ngo’s service back in November 2011:

“Superget lets users search for specific individuals by name, city, and state. Each “credit” costs USD$1, and a successful hit on a Social Security number or date of birth costs 3 credits each. The more credits you buy, the cheaper the searches are per credit: Six credits cost $4.99; 35 credits cost $20.99, and $100.99 buys you 230 credits. Customers with special needs can avail themselves of the “reseller plan,” which promises 1,500 credits for $500.99, and 3,500 credits for $1000.99.

“Our Databases are updated EVERY DAY,” the site’s owner enthuses. “About 99% nearly 100% US people could be found, more than any sites on the internet now.”

Ngo’s intrusion into MicroBilt eventually was detected, and the company kicked him out of their systems. But he says he got back in using another vulnerability.

“I was hacking them and it was back and forth for months,” Ngo said. “They would discover [my accounts] and fix it, and I would discover a new vulnerability and hack them again.”

COURT (AD)VENTURES, AND EXPERIAN

This game of cat and mouse continued until Ngo found a much more reliable and stable source of consumer data: A U.S. based company called Court Ventures, which aggregated public records from court documents. Ngo wasn’t interested in the data collected by Court Ventures, but rather in its data sharing agreement with a third-party data broker called U.S. Info Search, which had access to far more sensitive consumer records.

Using forged documents and more than a few lies, Ngo was able to convince Court Ventures that he was a private investigator based in the United States.

“At first [when] I sign up they asked for some documents to verify,” Ngo said. “So I just used some skill about social engineering and went through the security check.”

Then, in March 2012, something even more remarkable happened: Court Ventures was purchased by Experian, one of the big three major consumer credit bureaus in the United States. And for nine months after the acquisition, Ngo was able to maintain his access.

“After that, the database was under control by Experian,” he said. “I was paying Experian good money, thousands of dollars a month.”

Whether anyone at Experian ever performed due diligence on the accounts grandfathered in from Court Ventures is unclear. But it wouldn’t have taken a rocket surgeon to figure out that this particular customer was up to something fishy.

For one thing, Ngo paid the monthly invoices for his customers’ data requests using wire transfers from a multitude of banks around the world, but mostly from new accounts at financial institutions in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

O’Neill said Ngo’s identity theft website generated tens of thousands of queries each month. For example, the first invoice Court Ventures sent Ngo in December 2010 was for 60,000 queries. By the time Experian acquired the company, Ngo’s service had attracted more than 1,400 regular customers, and was averaging 160,000 monthly queries.

More importantly, Ngo’s profit margins were enormous.

“His service was quite the racket,” he said. “Court Ventures charged him 14 cents per lookup, but he charged his customers about $1 for each query.”

By this time, O’Neill and his fellow Secret Service agents had served dozens of subpoenas tied to Ngo’s identity theft service, including one that granted them access to the email account he used to communicate with customers and administer his site. The agents discovered several emails from Ngo instructing an accomplice to pay Experian using wire transfers from different Asian banks.

TLO

Working with the Secret Service, Experian quickly zeroed in on Ngo’s accounts and shut them down. Aware of an opportunity here, the Secret Service contacted Ngo through an intermediary in the United Kingdom — a known, convicted cybercriminal who agreed to play along. The U.K.-based collaborator told Ngo he had personally shut down Ngo’s access to Experian because he had been there first and Ngo was interfering with his business.

“The U.K. guy told Ngo, ‘Hey, you’re treading on my turf, and I decided to lock you out. But as long as you’re paying a vig through me, your access won’t go away’,” O’Neill recalled.

The U.K. cybercriminal, acting at the behest of the Secret Service and U.K. authorities, told Ngo that if he wanted to maintain his access, he could agree to meet up in person. But Ngo didn’t immediately bite on the offer.

Instead, he weaseled his way into another huge data store. In much the same way he’d gained access to Court Ventures, Ngo got an account at a company called TLO, another data broker that sells access to extremely detailed and sensitive information on most Americans.

TLO’s service is accessible to law enforcement agencies and to a limited number of vetted professionals who can demonstrate they have a lawful reason to access such information. In 2014, TLO was acquired by Trans Union, one of the other three big U.S. consumer credit reporting bureaus.

And for a short time, Ngo used his access to TLO to power a new iteration of his business — an identity theft service rebranded as usearching[.]info. This site also pulled consumer data from a payday loan company that Ngo hacked into, as documented in my Sept. 2012 story, ID Theft Service Tied to Payday Loan Sites. Ngo said the hacked payday loans site gave him instant access to roughly 1,000 new fullz records each day.

Ngo’s former ID theft service usearching[.]info.

BLINDED BY GREED

By this time, Ngo was a multi-millionaire: His various sites and reselling agreements with three Russian-language cybercriminal stores online had earned him more than USD $3 million. He told his parents his money came from helping companies develop websites, and even used some of his ill-gotten gains to pay off the family’s debts (its electronics business had gone belly up, and a family member had borrowed but never paid back a significant sum of money).

But mostly, Ngo said, he spent his money on frivolous things, although he says he’s never touched drugs or alcohol.

“I spent it on vacations and cars and a lot of other stupid stuff,” he said.

When TLO locked Ngo out of his account there, the Secret Service used it as another opportunity for their cybercriminal mouthpiece in the U.K. to turn the screws on Ngo yet again.

“He told Ngo he’d locked him out again, and the he could do this all day long,” O’Neill said. “And if he truly wanted lasting access to all of these places he used to have access to, he would agree to meet and form a more secure partnership.”

After several months of conversing with his apparent U.K.-based tormentor, Ngo agreed to meet him in Guam to finalize the deal. Ngo says he understood at the time that Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States, but that he discounted the chances that this was all some kind of elaborate law enforcement sting operation.

“I was so desperate to have a stable database, and I got blinded by greed and started acting crazy without thinking,” Ngo said. “Lots of people told me ‘Don’t go!,’ but I told them I have to try and see what’s going on.”

But immediately after stepping off of the plane in Guam, he was apprehended by Secret Service agents.

“One of the names of his identity theft services was findget[.]me,” O’Neill said. “We took that seriously, and we did like he asked.”

This is Part I of a multi-part series. Check back tomorrow (Aug. 27) for Part II, which will examine what investigators learned following Ngo’s arrest, and delve into his more recent effort to right the wrongs he’s done.

Why & Where You Should You Plant Your Flag

Several stories here have highlighted the importance of creating accounts online tied to your various identity, financial and communications services before identity thieves do it for you. This post examines some of the key places where everyone should plant their virtual flags.

As KrebsOnSecurity observed back in 2018, many people — particularly older folks — proudly declare they avoid using the Web to manage various accounts tied to their personal and financial data — including everything from utilities and mobile phones to retirement benefits and online banking services. From that story:

“The reasoning behind this strategy is as simple as it is alluring: What’s not put online can’t be hacked. But increasingly, adherents to this mantra are finding out the hard way that if you don’t plant your flag online, fraudsters and identity thieves may do it for you.”

“The crux of the problem is that while most types of customer accounts these days can be managed online, the process of tying one’s account number to a specific email address and/or mobile device typically involves supplying personal data that can easily be found or purchased online — such as Social Security numbers, birthdays and addresses.”

In short, although you may not be required to create online accounts to manage your affairs at your ISP, the U.S. Postal Service, the credit bureaus or the Social Security Administration, it’s a good idea to do so for several reasons.

Most importantly, the majority of the entities I’ll discuss here allow just one registrant per person/customer. Thus, even if you have no intention of using that account, establishing one will be far easier than trying to dislodge an impostor who gets there first using your identity data and an email address they control.

Also, the cost of planting your flag is virtually nil apart from your investment of time. In contrast, failing to plant one’s flag can allow ne’er-do-wells to create a great deal of mischief for you, whether it be misdirecting your service or benefits elsewhere, or canceling them altogether.

Before we dive into the list, a couple of important caveats. Adding multi-factor authentication (MFA) at these various providers (where available) and/or establishing a customer-specific personal identification number (PIN) also can help secure online access. For those who can’t be convinced to use a password manager, even writing down all of the account details and passwords on a slip of paper can be helpful, provided the document is secured in a safe place.

Perhaps the most important place to enable MFA is with your email accounts. Armed with access to your inbox, thieves can then reset the password for any other service or account that is tied to that email address.

People who don’t take advantage of these added safeguards may find it far more difficult to regain access when their account gets hacked, because increasingly thieves will enable multi-factor options and tie the account to a device they control.

Secondly, guard the security of your mobile phone account as best you can (doing so might just save your life). The passwords for countless online services can be reset merely by entering a one-time code sent via text message to the phone number on file for the customer’s account.

And thanks to the increasing prevalence of a crime known as SIM swapping, thieves may be able to upend your personal and financial life simply by tricking someone at your mobile service provider into diverting your calls and texts to a device they control.

Most mobile providers offer customers the option of placing a PIN or secret passphrase on their accounts to lessen the likelihood of such attacks succeeding, but these protections also usually fail when the attackers are social engineering some $12-an-hour employee at a mobile phone store.

Your best option is to reduce your overall reliance on your phone number for added authentication at any online service. Many sites now offer MFA options that are app-based and not tied to your mobile service, and this is your best option for MFA wherever possible.

YOUR CREDIT FILES

First and foremost, all U.S. residents should ensure they have accounts set up online at the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

It’s important to remember that the questions these bureaus will ask to verify your identity are not terribly difficult for thieves to answer or guess just by referencing public records and/or perhaps your postings on social media.

You will need accounts at these bureaus if you wish to freeze your credit file. KrebsOnSecurity has for many years urged all readers to do just that, because freezing your file is the best way to prevent identity thieves from opening new lines of credit in your name. Parents and guardians also can now freeze the files of their dependents for free.

For more on what a freeze entails and how to place or thaw one, please see this post. Beyond the big three bureaus, Innovis is a distant fourth bureau that some entities use to check consumer creditworthiness. Fortunately, filing a freeze with Innovis likewise is free and relatively painless.

It’s also a good idea to notify a company called ChexSystems to keep an eye out for fraud committed in your name. Thousands of banks rely on ChexSystems to verify customers who are requesting new checking and savings accounts, and ChexSystems lets consumers place a security alert on their credit data to make it more difficult for ID thieves to fraudulently obtain checking and savings accounts. For more information on doing that with ChexSystems, see this link.

If you placed a freeze on your file at the major bureaus more than a few years ago but haven’t revisited the bureaus’ sites lately, it might be wise to do that soon. Following its epic 2017 data breach, Equifax reconfigured its systems to invalidate the freeze PINs it previously relied upon to unfreeze a file, effectively allowing anyone to bypass that PIN if they can glean a few personal details about you. Experian’s site also has undermined the security of the freeze PIN.

I mentioned planting your flag at the credit bureaus first because if you plan to freeze your credit files, it may be wise to do so after you have planted your flag at all the other places listed in this story. That’s because these other places may try to check your identity records at one or more of the bureaus, and having a freeze in place may interfere with that account creation.

YOUR FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS

I can’t tell you how many times people have proudly told me they don’t bank online, and prefer to manage all of their accounts the old fashioned way. I always respond that while this is totally okay, you still need to establish an online account for your financial providers because if you don’t someone may do it for you.

This goes doubly for any retirement and pension plans you may have. It’s a good idea for people with older relatives to help those individuals set up and manage online identities for their various accounts — even if those relatives never intend to access any of the accounts online.

This process is doubly important for parents and relatives who have just lost a spouse. When someone passes away, there’s often an obituary in the paper that offers a great deal of information about the deceased and any surviving family members, and identity thieves love to mine this information.

YOUR GOVERNMENT

Whether you’re approaching retirement, middle-aged or just starting out in your career, you should establish an account online at the U.S. Social Security Administration. Maybe you don’t believe Social Security money will actually still be there when you retire, but chances are you’re nevertheless paying into the system now. Either way, the plant-your-flag rules still apply.

Ditto for the Internal Revenue Service. A few years back, ID thieves who specialize in perpetrating tax refund fraud were massively registering people at the IRS’s website to download key data from their prior years’ tax transcripts. While the IRS has improved its taxpayer validation and security measures since then, it’s a good idea to mark your territory here as well.

The same goes for your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which maintains an alarming amount of information about you whether you have an online account there or not. Because the DMV also is the place that typically issues state drivers licenses, you really don’t want to mess around with the possibility that someone could register as you, change your physical address on file, and obtain a new license in your name.

Last but certainly not least, you should create an account for your household at the U.S. Postal Service’s Web site. Having someone divert your mail or delay delivery of it for however long they like is not a fun experience.

Also, the USPS has this nifty service called Informed Delivery, which lets residents view scanned images of all incoming mail prior to delivery. In 2018, the U.S. Secret Service warned that identity thieves have been abusing Informed Delivery to let them know when residents are about to receive credit cards or notices of new lines of credit opened in their names. Do yourself a favor and create an Informed Delivery account as well. Note that multiple occupants of the same street address can each have their own accounts.

YOUR HOME

Online accounts coupled with the strongest multi-factor authentication available also are important for any services that provide you with telephone, television and Internet access.

Strange as it may sound, plenty of people who receive all of these services in a bundle from one ISP do not have accounts online to manage their service. This is dangerous because if thieves can establish an account on your behalf, they can then divert calls intended for you to their own phones.

My original Plant Your Flag piece in 2018 told the story of an older Florida man who had pricey jewelry bought in his name after fraudsters created an online account at his ISP and diverted calls to his home phone number so they could intercept calls from his bank seeking to verify the transactions.

If you own a home, chances are you also have an account at one or more local utility providers, such as power and water companies. If you don’t already have an account at these places, create one and secure access to it with a strong password and any other access controls available.

These frequently monopolistic companies traditionally have poor to non-existent fraud controls, even though they effectively operate as mini credit bureaus. Bear in mind that possession of one or more of your utility bills is often sufficient documentation to establish proof of identity. As a result, such records are highly sought-after by identity thieves.

Another common way that ID thieves establish new lines of credit is by opening a mobile phone account in a target’s name. A little-known entity that many mobile providers turn to for validating new mobile accounts is the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange, or nctue.com. Happily, the NCTUE allows consumers to place a freeze on their file by calling their 800-number, 1-866-349-5355. For more information on the NCTUE, see this page.

Have I missed any important items? Please sound off in the comments below.