September 8

Dear Legitimate Companies: Stop Acting Like Phishing Rings

Danger Wrong Way Turn Backby Aaron Titus

As a privacy and consumer advocate, it ruffles my feathers when otherwise legitimate companies force the public to disregard common-sense online safety practices in order to use their services. Among the many safety tips are:

  1. Only give confidential personal information to people you affirmatively contact, never to anyone who spontaneously contacts you.
  2. Don’t click on URLs in unsolicited e-mails.
  3. If you want to click on an e-mail link, never click “dishonest” links – links that don’t match the displayed URL.

Bad Practices

American Student Assistance (ASA) is a non-profit organization which helps students keep track of their student loans. It’s also an example of a legitimate organization with some irresponsible privacy practices.

Earlier this year I received an unsolicited e-mail from the ASA. I had never heard of the ASA, but the e-mail insisted that they were “the guarantor of [my] federal student loans.” To this day my bank has not introduced me to the ASA. Of course, this spontaneous contact from an “authoritative” organization made me suspicious. Red Flag 1: Unsolicited e-mail claiming to be from an authoritative source.

The letter instructed me to follow a link to log in with my FAFSA PIN. I was also notified that I have a “Profile,” and was invited to Update my profile by clicking on a link. The link took me to an insecure and unbranded website which automatically filled out my name, e-mail address, and indicates that I have been opted-in to receive a newsletter. Red Flag 2: Unsolicited authoritative e-mail, requesting that you “log-in” using sensitive information on an unsecured, no-name server. Spam newsletters are a bonus.

But before clicking on the links, I moused over each of them to see where they led to. A link which purported to go to “www.amsa.com/bor” actually links through “http://click.email-asa.org/?qs=33c40ef691b275c8d3b7e7d0430ce34d0980241c6c7eb313b745465bb515d8d5”. In fact, each of the eight links in the e-mail were “dishonest,” in that the actual URL was different from the displayed URL. Red Flag 3: Dishonest links.

This e-mail screamed “Phishing Scam,” so I called the toll-free phone number listed in the e-mail. A woman answered the phone. She immediately asked for sensitive personal information. I gave her my first and last name, but refused to give her any additional information since they had contacted me and I had no way to verify who they were. Red Flag 4: Unsolicited third party requesting personal information over the phone.

ASA’s Privacy Policy contains the following promises:

We do not disclose any nonpublic personal information about you or our other current or former customers, except as permitted by law…. We restrict access to nonpublic personal information about you to our employees, contractors, and agents who need to know the information in order to provide service to you…. We maintain physical, technical, and administrative safeguards in compliance with federal regulations to safeguard your nonpublic personal information. (Accessed August 27, 2009.)

But ASA’s privacy policy didn’t translate to privacy practices. After I refused to share personal information the lady on the phone asked, “Is your name Aaron [X] Titus, or Aaron [Y] Titus?” Uncomfortable, I replied, “Aaron [X]…” She asked for my date of birth. When I refused to give it to her, she read it to me over the phone. When I refused to give her my address, she  repeated my full address including street, number state and zip code.   She told me which school I attended and that she had access to my social security number on her screen. Red Flag 5: A representative sharing sensitive personal information over the phone without first authenticating.

Since I had no idea who this organization was I asked, but never got a straight answer. She and her supervisor variously described the organization as a “government agency,” “not a government agency,” “a non profit government agency,” and a “non profit organization which receives federal funds.” They relied on some relationship with the federal government to gain credibility. Red Flag 6: A fishy and inconsistent story designed to earn your trust.

My Advice: Quit it

After filing a complaint with the company, I talked with ASA’s Privacy and Compliance Director, Betsy Mayotte. Ms. Mayotte was kind enough to apologize for the behavior of her organization, and convinced me that the ASA is a legitimate organization, albeit one with uneducated and dangerous privacy practices. Apparently the representative was re-trained. But they did not plan to change anything else.

The dishonest links were designed to measure click-throughs: A common marketing practice. The unbranded and insecure server which asked me to update my “profile” was the result of bad practices, laziness or poor training. The other blatant violations of their privacy policy and outrageous behavior by the representative was more of the same.

I wish I could say that this is an unusual event. But unfortunately I’ve seen similar behavior by my bank, and even former employers. When legitimate companies force consumers to be irresponsible, the online public becomes irresponsible. Forcing consumers to ignore common-sense safety practices may save you a buck in the short run, but they make your customers irresponsible and erode overall online public safety. So here’s my advice to legitimate companies who behave like phishing rings:

Quit it.

Seriously, stop training the public to be irresponsible. If you want to track click-throughs for an e-mail marketing campaign, set up a virtual redirect on your main server. If you got sensitive personal information through a third party, make sure to have that third party introduce you to the customer. Don’t send unsolicited e-mail, and don’t cold-contact potential customers to request that they share personal information. Once and for all, encrypt your website. If your marketing department isn’t all that tech-savvy, hire someone who is. Train your customer service representatives never to give out personal information without first authenticating the identity of the person on the other end of the line.

Privacy policies are not just legal boilerplate which you can write and forget. Make sure that your privacy policy matches your privacy practices. This means that your customer service representatives should be as familiar with it as your general counsel.


Tags

security


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  1. Nice rant but the reality is that they won’t quit it as they have no financial incentive to do so. Especially in non-profit or industries with low margins.

    There is also a lack of consistency and guidelines in the industry. Example: go to usbank.com and then go to wellsfargo.com or etrade.com. What do you see? wellsfargo.com and etrade.com automatically redirect you to a page over SSL. usbank.com doesn’t? Why? You will need to ask them. But darn it – they have that cute little lock so that tells everyone its secure doesn’t it?

  2. Tim,
    You give an excellent example of what I consider a dishonest security practice: Displaying a little picture of a lock on an insecure website. As long as the market is allowed to substitute real security for the appearance of security, we train the online public to be irresponsible.

    You are correct that the market does not value privacy and security, and it is one of the first places to cut among industries with low margins. But I think that blaming a lack of security on poor funding is too simplistic. In the ASA’s example, their privacy policy (and common sense) should have told the representative not to give out personal information over the phone.

    I think that Awareness alone (even without training, expertise or funding) will solve 35% of security problems. Training will solve 75% of the problem, while adding Expertise and Funding will solve 98% of the problems. My experience has been that it is possible to solve a majority of the problems with just awareness and training, even without funding.

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