Bennett Haselton is back with another piece on e-mail privacy. He starts "On April 14, 2007, I signed up for an AmeriTrade account using an e-mail address consisting of 16 random alphanumeric characters, which I never gave to anyone else. On May 15, I started receiving pump-and-dump stock spams sent to that e-mail address. I was hardly the first person to discover that this happens. Almost all of the top hits in a Google search for "ameritrade spam" are from people with the same story: they used a unique address for each service that they sign up with, so they could tell if any company ever leaked their address to a spammer, and the address they gave to AmeriTrade started getting stock spam. (I don't actually do that with most companies where I create accounts. But after hearing all the AmeriTrade stories, I created an account with them in April just for the purpose of entering a unique e-mail address and seeing if it would get leaked.)" Bennett continues on if you're willing to click the link.
What's surprising is that as far as I can tell, AmeriTrade has taken almost no heat in the media for letting this happen. Despite the abundant testimonials from bloggers who had their addresses leaked, the story never crossed over into the "mainstream" Internet press. In a recent Bloomberg News story, the FBI warned that E*Trade and AmeriTrade users were vulnerable to spyware installed by criminals in hotels and cybercafes to capture accounts and run pump-and-dump stock spams; no mention of the fact that all AmeriTrade e-mail addresses were apparently already in the hands of spammers anyway (although no one knows if usernames and passwords were leaked to the spammers as well).
This doesn't bode well for anyone who uses any type of online service and wants that service to keep their personal information secure. If AmeriTrade got skewered in the media for leaking customers' personal information to spammers, other companies would see that and learn the lesson. On the other hand, if AmeriTrade gets away with it with barely a whisper in the mainstream news, other companies are going to take note of that, too. Besides, spam and identity theft hurt everyone, not just the victims, because the costs are passed on to all of us in terms of higher ISP charges, higher payment processing fees, and more mail lost due to stringent spam filters.
AmeriTrade disclosed in April 2005 that a tape containing some customer information might have been stolen in February of that year, and many spam victims who blogged about their AmeriTrade addresses being stolen, referenced that incident as the likely cause. But after Bill Katz's blog post became a clearinghouse of sorts for complaints about stolen AmeriTrade addresses (probably as a result of being the first match on Google for "ameritrade spam"), several users posted that they had received spam at accounts that were only created with AmeriTrade in summer 2006. And then my e-mail address got leaked between April 14 and May 15, 2007. So it's pretty clear that some attacker has access to the AmeriTrade customer database on an ongoing basis, and the February 2005 tape theft probably had nothing to do with it.
AmeriTrade says that California law required them to notify their California customers of a potential security breach after the tapes were stolen, and that they went further and notified all of their customers anyway. Since there is now proof that their database is more or less perpetually open to some outside attacker, will they send out another notification letter to customers?
An accidental security breach can happen to any responsible company, especially if they are compromised from the inside. But the trail of blogosphere and UseNet posts indicates that several times AmeriTrade has concealed the full extent of the problem from customers who asked them about it, or has given out information that they already knew was wrong. In one thread in October 2005, a user reported that they wrote to AmeriTrade asking why their AmeriTrade-only e-mail address was getting spammed, and AmeriTrade replied that the spammer might have guessed the address using a dictionary attack, adding:
But that was long after February 2005, when AmeriTrade said that tapes containing customer data were stolen. (Even if that turned out not to be the cause of the spam after all, by that point AmeriTrade knew that their customers' addresses had been leaked somehow.)We have no reason to believe that any of our systems have been compromised. Ameritrade deploys state of the art firewalls, intrusion detection, anti-virus software as well as employs a full time staff of employee's dedicated strictly to Information Security and protecting Ameritrade's systems from unauthorized access.
Then when my friend Art Medlar complained to AmeriTrade this year about the same thing happening, he got a response saying that even if he was getting spammed by an address that he only gave to AmeriTrade, that could be the result of hackers "implanting 'bots' that have the ability to extract e-mail addresses from your computer, even when you have protective spy software engaged". But of course this makes no sense -- if this were the source of the problem, it would affect everyone's e-mail addresses equally, and would not explain why a disproportionate number of complaints were coming from people who created addresses that they gave to AmeriTrade specifically.
When I sent AmeriTrade my own inquiry, I got a response that was identical to a forwarded message that someone else posted to news.admin.net-abuse.email in April. (To their credit, in this version of the message, AmeriTrade is acknowledging responsibility for the problem instead of attributing it to dictionary attacks or botnets. But the e-mail contains the curious piece of advice: "Please be sure to delete any spam you might receive, then empty your e-mail's trash so that it's no longer kept there, either." Huh? As one reader replied to the UseNet thread: "Cynical Translation: Please don't retain any independent evidence.") At first I didn't realize this was a boilerplate response, so I sent back some more questions, asking, for example, whether they would notify their California customers of the data security breach as required by that state's laws. The second response I got was a copy of the old boilerplate that they were sending out two years ago, blaming "dictionary attacks".
Now, compared to the 1,000 spams I already get every day (pre-filtering), the AmeriTrade spams were just a drop in the bucket, and many of their customers are probably in the same boat. And unlike most AmeriTrade customers, at least I can stop all AmeriTrade spam just by de-activating those addresses, since they aren't used for anything else. (Right now I'm keeping them open just to see what else comes in.) But AmeriTrade's database also contains much more valuable information such as names, PIN numbers (do you use the same PIN number everywhere that you sign up?), and Social Security Numbers. When I signed up for my account, informed by dire warnings that federal law required accurate information "to help the government fight the funding of terrorism and money laundering activities", I gave AmeriTrade my real SSN, address, and other personal data, figuring that if I gave them false information, I might get in more trouble than the experiment was worth. But now that the attacker has my e-mail, they might have all of my other information as well. In the coming months I'll probably start checking my credit report more often than I used to.
Probably someone inside AmeriTrade is selling customer data to an outside spammer. (It seems less likely that an attacker would keep breaking into AmeriTrade repeatedly to get updated copies of the customer list. Once you've broken in and gotten the customer database from 2006, why bother breaking in a year later, taking the risk all over again of getting caught and going to jail, just to get the updated 2007 database? Surely the 2006 list would be enough to run any pump-and-dump stock scam that you want!) Two suggestions to AmeriTrade to tighten their security: First, the number of people within the company who can access the customer database, is probably a lot larger than the number who actually need to access the customer database. Limit access to the e-mail database to people who actually need it. Second, in any cases where different employees really need to have access to the list, try giving them different versions of it, where each version is "seeded" with spamtrap addresses at Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. If the spamtrap addresses that start receiving spam are all ones that were used to seed one particular employee's copy of the list, then you've found the source of the leak. That won't stop the spam being sent to addresses that have already been stolen, but it could prevent further leaks from happening.
The SEC recently announced that they would suspend trading of companies whose stocks had been the target of spam campaigns to manipulate the price. Perhaps AmeriTrade could do something similar -- once a stock is identified as being promoted in spams sent to AmeriTrade customers, any customer attempting to buy that stock would be presented with a message saying that AmeriTrade was blocking the transaction for security reasons. (If this runs afoul of some SEC regulation that a brokerage has to let you buy any stock you want any time you want, then at least display a big warning when AmeriTrade users try to buy it through their system, saying that the stock has been the subject of a fraudulent promotion scheme and is an extremely high-risk buy.) However, while this would remove the incentive for stock spammers to target AmeriTrade customers, it's also really just covering up a symptom of the problem, rather than addressing the problem itself, which is that a spammer was able to steal the customer information from AmeriTrade's database in the first place.
But whatever they do, AmeriTrade should stop blowing off the people who complain about the spam, with messages about "dictionary attacks" and "botnets". When customers create specialized spamtrap addresses to detect if their e-mails ever get leaked, those are the tech-savvy customers who (a) know what they're doing, and (b) hate spam more than most people, and giving them misleading information is just poking a stick in their eye. Not a smart move when AmeriTrade has been leaking private customer information and is based, as their name indicates, in the most litigious country in the history of the world.