Consequences And New Threats From The Massive Equifax Breach

Equifax logo To protect themselves and their sensitive information, many victims of the massive Equifax data breach have signed up for the free credit monitoring and fraud resolution services Equifax arranged. That's a good start. Some victims have gone a step further and placed Fraud Alerts or Security Freezes on their credit reports at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. That's good, too. But, is that enough?

The answer to that question requires an understanding of what criminals can do with the sensitive information accessed stolen during the Equifax breach. Criminals can commit types of fraud which credit monitoring, credit report alerts, and freezes cannot stop. Consumer Reports (CR) explained:

"Freezing your credit report specifically at Equifax will also prevent crooks from registering as you at the government website, my Social Security, and block them from attempting to steal your Social Security benefits. But taking these steps won't protect you against every identity fraud threat arising from the Equifax data breach."

Sadly, besides credit and loan fraud the Equifax breach exposed breach victims to tax refund fraud, health care fraud, and driver's license (identity) fraud. This is what makes the data breach particularly nasty. CR also listed the data elements criminals use with each type of fraud:

"With your Social Security number, crooks can file false income tax returns in your name, take bogus deductions, and steal the resulting refund. More than 14,000 fraudulent 2016 tax returns, with $92 million in unwarranted refunds, were detected and stopped by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as of last March... Data from the Equifax breach can be used to steal your benefits from private health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid when the identity thief uses your coverage to pay for his own medical treatment and prescriptions... Using your driver’s license number, identity thieves can create bogus driver’s licenses and hang their moving violations on you...."

The CR article suggested several ways for consumers to protect themselves from each type of fraud: a) request an Identity Protection PIN number from the IRS; b) request copies of your medical file from your providers and review your MIB Consumer File each year; and c) request a copy of your driving license record and get your free annual consumer report from ChexSystemsCertegy, and TeleCheck -  the three major check verification companies.

Never considered reviewing your tax account with the IRS? You can. Never heard of a Consumer MIB File? I'm not surprised. Most people haven't. I encourage consumers to read the entire CR article. While at the CR site, read their review of TrustedID Premier service which Equifax arranged for breach victims. It's an eye-opener.

Do these solutions sound like a lot of preventative work? They are. You have Equifax to thank for that. Will Equifax help breach victims with the time and effort required to research and implement the solutions CR recommended? Will Equifax compensate breach victims for the costs incurred with these solutions? These are questions breach victims should ask Equifax and TrustedID Premier.

Consumers and breach victims are slowly learning the consequences of a data breach are extensive. The consequences include time, effort, money, and aggravation. You might say breach victims have been mugged. Worse, consumers are saddled the burden from the consequences. That isn't fair. The companies making money by selling consumers' credit reports and information should be responsible for the burdens. Things are out of balance.

What are your opinions?


Without Fanfare, Equifax Makes Bankruptcy Change That Affects Hundreds of Thousands

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, highlights how credit reporting agencies treat certain information contained in consumers' credit reports. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Paul Kiel. ProPublica

For what appears to be decades, the credit rating agency Equifax has quietly layered three more years of tarnish on the credit histories of hundreds of thousands of people who had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13.

While its competitors, TransUnion and Experian, placed a flag on such histories for seven years, Equifax left it on the reports of Chapter 13 filers who failed to complete their bankruptcy plans for 10.

After ProPublica asked about the difference in its policy, the company said it now leaves the flag on for seven years, but refused to say when and why the change was made.

The consequences of Equifax’s harsher policy were likely life-changing for some unlucky people. As Experian warns consumers on its website, “having a bankruptcy in your credit history will seriously affect your ability to obtain credit for as long as it remains on your report. It can also affect your ability to qualify for things like an apartment, utilities, and even employment. Even car insurance rates may be affected.” Without knowing why, consumers could have been turned down for apartments because landlords checked their Equifax report rather than those from Experian or TransUnion.

Why Equifax’s policy was different is unclear and the company would not address it. But that such a discrepancy had gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long underscores how lightly regulated the industry is.

ProPublica contacted all of the major credit agencies earlier this year as part of our ongoing series on consumer bankruptcy. The policies of TransUnion and Experian were similar: People who filed under Chapter 7, which wipes out most debts, would have a flag on their report for 10 years; those who filed under Chapter 13, which usually involves five years of payments before debts are forgiven, would have a flag for seven.

Equifax had the same Chapter 7 policy. But the company had a key difference in its policy for Chapter 13 filers: Those who were unable to complete their five years of payments and had their cases dismissed were saddled with a flag for three additional years.

This difference had the potential for widespread impact. About half of Chapter 13 cases are dismissed, usually because debtors fall behind on payments. From 2008 through 2010, 574,000 Chapter 13 cases were filed and subsequently dismissed, according to our analysis of filings. Under Equifax’s policy of keeping the flag on for 10 years, all those debtors would have a flag on their Equifax report through the end of 2017, but not on their TransUnion and Experian histories.

“It’s a problem, because you have a disparate treatment of debtors depending on which credit rating agency is reporting,” said Tara Twomey, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “We really need consistent credit reporting for this system to work.”

Equifax’s policy also disproportionately affected black consumers, because, as our analysis showed, black debtors are more likely than whites to choose Chapter 13 and have their cases dismissed.

ProPublica wrote the company again in July, prior to its recent disclosure that its records had been hacked, laying out the potential impact of its policy on consumers and asking why it differed from competitors. In an email, Equifax spokeswoman Nancy Bistritz-Balkan wrote that the company had “recently modified the length of time for how long a dismissed Chapter 13 bankruptcy remains on file.” Under the new policy, she wrote, “Equifax removes the flag for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy after seven years, regardless of outcome.”

She would not say what “recently” meant, only saying, “The change we referenced was not implemented after we received your inquiry.” As to why Equifax made the change, she wrote, “At this time, I do not have additional details about how the change was made.”

It might seem puzzling that such a meaningful policy is not governed by law. While some aspects of credit reporting are, others are simply decided among the agencies themselves. Bankruptcy is a mix of the two. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the longest a bankruptcy can stay on someone’s credit report is 10 years. The credit rating agencies have voluntarily decided to treat Chapter 13 cases differently because Chapter 13 typically involves the repayment of some debt, while Chapter 7 does not. Bistritz-Balkan made a point of saying that Equifax’s previous policy had been legal.

Initially, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 have a similar effect on debtors’ credit scores, one that diminishes over time. Bankruptcy is a negative mark on a debtor’s history, but that doesn’t mean that declaring bankruptcy will invariably damage someone’s credit score. In fact, research shows that most people who declare bankruptcy actually see their score rise in the following months. That’s because the typical score is so low that the negative effect of the bankruptcy is outweighed by the positive effect of wiping out debt.

According to Zachary Anderson, a spokesman for FICO, the median FICO score for consumers who declared bankruptcy between October 2009 and October 2010, when filings peaked during the Great Recession, was 558 — lower than all but 20 percent of consumers with a credit score.

A recent analysis of credit files by Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, shows how scores change before and after bankruptcy. In the months prior to filing, as consumers fall deeper into debt, the average credit score plunges. The analysis, using a credit score generated by Equifax that works similarly to a FICO score, found that the average score fell to a low around 520-530, but recovered sharply over the next 6 months, then gradually increased thereafter.

Chart. Average Credit Scores Plunge Before Bankruptcy, Rise After. Click to view larger version

The next noticeable bump was seven or 10 years later, depending on the chapter, when the bankruptcy flags were removed. Consumers’ credit scores then jumped by about 10 points.

The consumers with the lowest credit scores, the analysis found, were those who had their Chapter 13 cases dismissed. That would be due, in part, to the fact that they tend to be disproportionately low-income and black, two groups with lower credit scores on average.

As we showed in our story about bankruptcy in Memphis, where Chapter 13 dismissals are incredibly common, these debtors can find themselves worse off for having tried bankruptcy. They might be even further behind on their debts after their cases are dismissed, making it harder to re-establish their credit. The effect of a dismissal lasts for years. At the very least, Equifax’s change in how it handles Chapter 13s means that the shadow cast by a past bankruptcy isn’t quite as long.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Why The IRS Gave Equifax A No-Bid Contract Extension

You've probably heard the news. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gave a no-bid contract to Equifax, even after knowing about the credit reporting agency's massive data breach and arguably lackadaisical data security approaches by management.

Why would the IRS do this? The contract's synopsis in the Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) site stated on September 30:

"This action was to establish an order for third party data services from Equifax to verify taxpayer identity and to assist in ongoing identity verification and validations needs of the Service. A sole source order is required to cover the timeframe needed to resolve the protest on contract TIRNO-17-Z-00024. This is considered a critical service that cannot lapse."

C/Net explained the decision and sequence of key events:

"The IRS already had enough trouble dealing with tax fraud, losing $5.8 billion to scammers in 2013... The contract, first reported by Politico,... describes the agreement as a "sole source order," calling Equifax's help a "critical service." When it comes to credit monitoring, there are really only three major names in the US: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Experian has also suffered a breach... The IRS actually awarded its authentication service contract to another company in July, Jeffrey Tribiano, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations support told members of Congress. Equifax protested losing the contract to the US Government Accountability Office on July 7, according to documents. The office will decide on the protest by October 16. Until then, the IRS could not move onto its new partner. That meant that when the IRS' old contract with Equifax was supposed to expire on Friday (Sept. 29), Tribiano said, millions of Americans would not have been able to verify their identity with the agency for more than two weeks."

Wow! So, the IRS was caught between a rock and a hard place... or "caught between a rock and a hacked place" as C/Net described. Apparently, consumers taxpayers are also caught.

Once again, another mess involving Equifax gives consumers that "I've been mugged" feeling.


Update: All Yahoo Accounts Hacked During Its Data Breach in 2013

Verizon Oath logo Yahoo, now within Verizon's Oath business unit, announced on Tuesday an update in the the number of accounts hacked during its massive data breach in 2013. The announcement stated:

"... [Yahoo] is providing notice to additional user accounts affected by an August 2013 data theft previously disclosed by the company on December 14, 2016. At that time, Yahoo disclosed that more than one billion of the approximately three billion accounts existing in 2013 had likely been affected... Subsequent to Yahoo's acquisition by Verizon, and during integration, the company recently obtained new intelligence and now believes, following an investigation with the assistance of outside forensic experts, that all Yahoo user accounts were affected by the August 2013 theft... Yahoo is sending email notifications to the additional affected user accounts..."

That's 3 billion accounts hacked! It almost boggles the mind. Consumers with questions should also visit the Yahoo 2013 Account Security Page which has been updated with information released this week. Key information about the breach and consumers' data stolen:

"On December 14, 2016, Yahoo announced that, based on its analysis of data files provided by law enforcement, the company believed that an unauthorized party stole data associated with certain user accounts in August 2013... the stolen user account information may have included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, hashed passwords and, in some cases, encrypted or un-encrypted security questions and answers. The investigation indicates that the information that was stolen did not include passwords in clear text, payment card data, or bank account information. Payment card data and bank account information are not stored in the system the company believes was affected... No additional notifications regarding the cookie forging activity are being sent in connection with this update..."

Obviously, affected users should change their passwords, security questions, and security answers -- if they haven't already. Some consumers are confused about whether e-mail breach announcements they have received are authentic and truly from Yahoo. The tech company advised:

"... email from Yahoo about this issue will display the Yahoo icon Purple Y icon when viewed through the Yahoo website or Yahoo Mail app. Importantly, the email does not ask you to click on any links or contain attachments and does not request your personal information. If an email you received about this issue prompts you to click on a link, download an attachment, or asks you for information, the email was not sent by Yahoo and may be an attempt to steal your personal information. Avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from such suspicious emails."

Uncertain users should also check the official Yahoo breach notices by country. In June of this year, Verizon completed its acquisition of Yahoo! Inc. and announced then:

"Verizon has combined these assets with its existing AOL business to create a new subsidiary, Oath, a diverse house of more than 50 media and technology brands that engages more than a billion people around the world. The Oath portfolio includes HuffPost, Yahoo Sports, AOL.com, MAKERS, Tumblr, BUILD Studios, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Mail and more, with a mission to build brands people love."

Reportedly, the Oath portfolio will include products, services, and apps covering content partnerships, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment by a grand jury of four defendants, including two officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), for computer hacking, economic espionage and other criminal offenses related to the massive hack of millions of Yahoo webmail accounts.

The announcement this week by Yahoo is a reminder of the importance of post-breach investigations and how long these investigations can take to uncover complete details about the hack. It is unwise to assume that everything is known at the time of the initial breach notification. It is also unwise to assume that companies can immediately improve their data security and systems after a massive breach.


Equifax: 2.5 Million More Persons Affected By Massive Data Breach

Equifax logo Equifax disclosed on Monday, October 2, that 2.5 more persons than originally announced were affected by its massive data breach earlier this year. According to the Equifax breach website:

"... cybersecurity firm Mandiant has completed the forensic portion of its investigation of the cybersecurity incident disclosed on September 7 to finalize the consumers potentially impacted... The completed review determined that approximately 2.5 million additional U.S. consumers were potentially impacted, for a total of 145.5 million. Mandiant did not identify any evidence of additional or new attacker activity or any access to new databases or tables. Instead, this additional population of consumers was confirmed during Mandiant’s completion of the remaining investigative tasks and quality assurance procedures built into the investigative process."

The September breach announcement said that persons outside the United States may have been affected. The October 2nd update addressed that, too:

"The completed review also has concluded that there is no evidence the attackers accessed databases located outside of the United States. With respect to potentially impacted Canadian citizens, the company previously had stated that there may have been up to 100,000 Canadian citizens impacted... The completed review subsequently determined that personal information of approximately 8,000 Canadian consumers was impacted. In addition, it also was determined that some of the consumers with affected credit cards announced in the company’s initial statement are Canadian. The company will mail written notice to all of the potentially impacted Canadian citizens."

So, things are worse than originally announced in September: more United States citizens affected, fewer Canadian citizens affected overall but more Canadians' credit card information exposed, and we still don't know the number of United Kingdom residents affected:

"The forensic investigation related to United Kingdom consumers has been completed and the resulting information is now being analyzed in the United Kingdom. Equifax is continuing discussions with regulators in the United Kingdom regarding the scope of the company’s consumer notifications...

And, there's this statement by Paulino do Rego Barros, Jr., the newly appointed interim CEO (after former CEO Richard Smith resigned):

"... As this important phase of our work is now completed, we continue to take numerous steps to review and enhance our cybersecurity practices. We also continue to work closely with our internal team and outside advisors to implement and accelerate long-term security improvements..."

To review? That means Equifax has not finished the job of making its systems and websites more secure with security fixes based upon how the attackers broke in, which identify attacks earlier, and which prevent future breaches. As bad as this sounds, the reality is probably worse.

After testimony before Congress by former Equifax CEO Richard Smith, Wired documented "six fresh horrors" about the breach and the leisurely approach by the credit reporting agency's executives. First, this about the former CEO:

"... during Tuesday's hearing, former CEO Smith added that he first heard about "suspicious activity" in a customer-dispute portal, where Equifax tracks customer complaints and efforts to correct mistakes in their credit reports, on July 31. He moved to hire cybersecurity experts from the law firm King & Spalding to start investigating the issue on August 2. Smith claimed that, at that time, there was no indication that any customer's personally identifying information had been compromised. As it turns out, after repeated questions from lawmakers, Smith admitted he never asked at the time whether PII being affected was even a possibility. Smith further testified that he didn't ask for a briefing about the "suspicious activity" until August 15, almost two weeks after the special investigation began and 18 days after the initial red flag."

Didn't ask about PII? Geez! PII describes the set of data elements which are the most sensitive information about consumers. It's the business of being a credit reporting agency. Waited 2 weeks for a briefing? Not good either. And, that is a most generous description since some experts question whether the breach actually started in March -- about four months before the July event.

Wired reported the following about Smith's Congressional testimony and the March breach:

"Attackers initially got into the affected customer-dispute portal through a vulnerability in the Apache Struts platform, an open-source web application service popular with corporate clients. Apache disclosed and patched the relevant vulnerability on March 6... Smith said there are two reasons the customer-dispute portal didn't receive that patch, known to be critical, in time to prevent the breach. The first excuse Smith gave was "human error." He says there was a particular (unnamed) individual who knew that the portal needed to be patched but failed to notify the appropriate IT team. Second, Smith blamed a scanning system used to spot this sort of oversight that did not identify the customer-dispute portal as vulnerable. Smith said forensic investigators are still looking into why the scanner failed."

Geez! Sounds like a managerial failure, too. Nobody followed up with the unnamed persons responsible for patching the portal? And Equifax executives took a leisurely (and perhaps lackadaisical) approach to protecting sensitive information about consumers:

"When asked by representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois about what data Equifax encrypts in its systems, Smith admitted that the data compromised in the customer-dispute portal was stored in plaintext and would have been easily readable by attackers... It’s unclear exactly what of the pilfered data resided in the portal versus other parts of Equifax’s system, but it turns out that also didn’t matter much, given Equifax's attitude toward encryption overall. “OK, so this wasn’t [encrypted], but your core is?” Kinzinger asked. “Some, not all," Smith replied. "There are varying levels of security techniques that the team deploys in different environments around the business."

Geez! So, we now have confirmation that the "core" information -- the most sensitive data about consumers -- in Equifax's databases is only partially encrypted.

Context matters. In January of this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took punitive action against TransUnion and Equifax for deceptive marketing practices involving credit scores and related subscription services. That action included $23.1 million in fines and penalties.

Thanks to member of Congress for asking the tough questions. No thanks to Equifax executives for taking lackadaisical approaches to data security. (TransUnion, Innovis, and Experian executives: are you watching? Learning what mistakes not to repeat?) Equifax has lost my trust.

Until Equifax hardens its systems (I prefer NSA-level hardness), it shouldn't be entrusted with consumers' sensitive personal and payment information. Consumers should be able to totally opt out of credit reporting agencies that fail with data security. This would allow the marketplace to govern things and stop the corporate socialism benefiting credit reporting agencies.

What are your opinions?

[Editor's note: this post was amended on October 7 with information about the CFPB fines.]


Report: Patched Macs Still Vulnerable To Firmware Hacks

Apple Inc. logo I've heard numerous times the erroneous assumption by consumers: "Apple-branded devices don't get computer viruses." Well, they do. Ars Technica reported about a particular nasty hack of vulnerabilities in devices' Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI). Never heard of EFI? Well:

"An analysis by security firm Duo Security of more than 73,000 Macs shows that a surprising number remained vulnerable to such attacks even though they received OS updates that were supposed to patch the EFI firmware. On average, 4.2 percent of the Macs analyzed ran EFI versions that were different from what was prescribed by the hardware model and OS version. 47 Mac models remained vulnerable to the original Thunderstrike, and 31 remained vulnerable to Thunderstrike 2. At least 16 models received no EFI updates at all. EFI updates for other models were inconsistently successful, with the 21.5-inch iMac released in late 2015 topping the list, with 43 percent of those sampled running the wrong version."

This is very bad. EFI hacks are particularly effective and nasty because:

"... they give attackers control that starts with the very first instruction a Mac receives... the level of control attackers get far exceeds what they gain by exploiting vulnerabilities in the OS... That means an attacker who compromises a computer's EFI can bypass higher-level security controls, such as those built into the OS or, assuming one is running for extra protection, a virtual machine hypervisor. An EFI infection is also extremely hard to detect and even harder to remedy, as it can survive even after a hard drive is wiped or replaced and a clean version of the OS is installed."

At-risk EFI versions mean that devices running Windows and Linux operating systems are also vulnerable. Reportedly, the exploit requires plenty of computing and technical expertise, so hackers would probably pursue high-value targets (e.g., journalists, attorneys, government officials, contractors with government clearances) first.

The Duo Labs Report (63 pages, Adobe PDF) lists the specific MacBook, MacBookAir, and MacBookPro models at risk. The researchers shared a draft of the report with Apple before publication. The report's "Mitigation" section provides solutions, including but not limited to:

"Always deploy the full update package as released by Apple, do not remove separate packages from the bundle updater... When possible, deploy Combo OS updates instead of Delta updates... As a general rule of thumb, always run the latest version of macOS..."

Scary, huh? The nature of the attack means that hackers probably can disable the anti-virus software on your device(s), and you probably wouldn't know you've been hacked.


Survey: United States Citizens Don't Know Their Basic Constitutional Rights

The Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) announced the results of its latest annual Constitution Day Civics Survey -- how well United States citizens know their Constitutional rights. The latest survey was conducted August 9 to 13 and included 1,013 adults. Main findings:

"1. More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;

2. More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment; and

3. Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government."

About the rights of undocumented immigrants, the incorrect belief is held by more conservatives (67 percent) compared to moderates (48 percent) and liberals (46 percent). The APPC explained:

"In fact, immigrants who are in the United States illegally share some constitutional protections with U.S. citizens. More than a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), a case involving a Chinese immigrant, the Supreme Court ruled that non-citizens were entitled to due process rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Other cases have expanded upon those rights..."

A tiny bit of good news in the survey results:

"Most respondents, though not all, know that under the Constitution, U.S. citizens who are atheists or Muslim have the same rights as all other citizens. Seventy-nine percent of respondents know it is accurate to say that U.S. citizens who are atheists have the same rights as other citizens, and 76 percent know it is accurate to say that citizens who are Muslim have the same rights as other citizens."

About how well (or not) citizens' know their rights under the First Amendment (bold emphasis added):

"Nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) say that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, unprompted, 37 percent could not name any First Amendment rights. And far fewer people could name the other First Amendment rights: 15 percent of respondents say freedom of religion; 14 percent say freedom of the press; 10 percent say the right of assembly; and only 3 percent say the right to petition the government... Contrary to the First Amendment, 39 percent of Americans support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on any issue of national security without government approval. That was essentially unchanged from last year..."

So, many Americans fail to understand the law of the land -- the U.S. Constitution -- and some naively (or stupidly) support actions to restrict their rights.

Are things getting better or worse? In a 2011 survey by the APPC, barely half of United States citizens (51 percent) knew that a two-thirds majority vote by Congress is needed to overturn a presidential veto. In a 2015 survey by the APPC, about one in ten Americans (12 percent) said that the Bill of Rights guarantees pet ownership. It doesn't. A quick comparison across the years:

Survey Result (% of People) 2011 2015 2017
Correctly named all 3 branches of government 38 31 26
Unable to name 1 branch of government 33 32 33

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania said:

"Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome... These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections."

I agree. These results are embarrassing, too. What do you think?


Here Comes The Post-Equifax-Breach Spam From Scammers

If you haven't received them yet, you probably will soon. Here comes the spam - unwanted e-mail messages - from scammers, supposedly related to the massive Equifax data breach. The spam will likely include phishing attacks: attempts to trick consumers into disclosing sensitive bank account and payment data.

What might this spam look like? The spam filter by my e-mail provider recently trapped the message below in my spam folder:

Suspected spam email. Click to view larger version

The sender's intent is to clearly leverage consumers' anxieties and fears about the massive, horrific Equifax breach. The e-mail message also states:

Suspected spam email. Click to view larger version

The message offers both three free credit scores and free credit reports. The problems I see with this e-mail:

  1. The message doesn't list a price for its offer. The company name -- FreeCreditClick -- implies the offer is free.
  2. Key items in the e-mail don't match. The company name in the "From" field doesn't match the e-mail address. Nor does the company name in the "From" field match the company name in the body of the message.
  3. The sender's e-mail address in the "From" field includes a version of an e-mail address I've seen before in other spam.
  4. The Equifax site already directs consumers affected by the data breach to an Equifax site to learn how to get protection (e.g., credit monitoring and fraud resolution services) for free.
  5.  The e-mail offers credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Informed consumers know that the official website for free credit reports is annualcreditreport.com.
  6. Informed consumers know that while there are several brands of credit scores, they probably need a single good one.
  7. The e-mail contains order and unsubscribe links with destinations that doesn't match either the company's name in "1" nor "2."

To understand #7, I reviewed the underlying HTML markup language used to create this e-mail message:

HTML markup of the suspected spam email. Click to view larger version

The destinations for both the order link (A) and the unsubscribe link (B) contain the "proffbuilder.com" site and embedded redirect commands. The redirect commands could take your web browser anywhere. Too risky, so I did not click on them.

As best I can tell, this definitely is spam. I don't trust it. What do you think?


FCC: You Really Don't Need High-Speed Internet Services

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeks to lower key internet standards: the minimum download and upload speeds for services to qualify as high-speed internet (a/k/a broadband). What the heck you ask? Sadly, this is no joke.

First, some background. Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to determine whether broadband services are deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner. In 2015, the FCC raised the standard after a 2015 report found that that broadband deployment wasn't keeping pace in the United States with its citizens needs nor with the rest of the planet:

"Congress directed us to evaluate annually "whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." For a service to be considered advanced, it must enable Americans "to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications." We can no longer conclude that broadband at speeds of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload (4 Mbps/1 Mbps)—a benchmark established in 2010 and relied on in the last three Reports—supports the “advanced” functions Congress identified. Trends in deployment and adoption, the speeds that providers are offering today, and the speeds required to use high-quality video, data, voice, and other broadband applications all point at a new benchmark. The average household has more than 2.5 people, and for family households, the average household size is as high as 4.3... we find that, having “advanced telecommunications capability” requires access to actual download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps (25 Mbps/3 Mbps)... Although public- and private-sector initiatives continue to advance deployment, these advances are not occurring broadly enough or quickly enough. Recent data show that approximately 55 million Americans (17 percent) live in areas unserved by fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband or higher service, and that gap closed only by three percentage points in the last year... Americans living in rural areas and on Tribal lands disproportionately lack access to broadband. Our data show that 25 Mbps/3 Mbps capability is unavailable to 8 percent of Americans living in urban areas, compared to 53 percent of Americans living in rural areas and 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands and in the U.S. Territories. The gap between those with and without access declined by only 2 percent in rural areas..."

Note: the FCC phrase "advanced telecommunications capability" equals broadband. The vote in 2015 by FCC commissioners to raise the standard was 3-2 along party lines. (Democrats held a majority.) Third, the FCC released a Fact Sheet on January 7, 2016 which (again) highlighted the broadband deployment shortfalls:

"While the nation continues to make progress in broadband deployment, advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans. Factors leading to this conclusion are as follows: a) Approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps for downloads, 3 Mbps for uploads; b) A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access. 10 percent lack access nationwide; c) 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access; d) 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff. These schools educate 47 percent of the nation’s students... Internationally, the U.S. continues to lag behind a number of other developed nations, ranking 16th out of 34 countries."

16th place is not American excellence. Not even close. We can and should do much better. The Fact Sheet also concluded that everyone needs both fixed and mobile internet access:

"Fixed and mobile service offer distinct functions meeting both complementary and distinct needs: a) Fixed broadband offers high -speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household; b) But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.

Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forgo use of the Internet."

We all need fast, wired internet at home, at work, and in school. We all need fast, wireless internet when traveling on business, vacation, or working away from the office or school. Sensible.

On Thursday, Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the commissioners at the FCC, posted on Twitter:

What gives? Last month, the FCC filed a Notice of Inquiry (a/k/a "Inquiry Concerning Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans in a Reasonable and Timely Fashion" - document #17-109A1) which attempts to consolidate the fixed and mobile broadband speeds into a single standard:

"...We propose to incorporate both fixed and mobile advanced telecommunications services into our Section 706 inquiry... According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans subscribing to fixed broadband has reached an all-time high of approximately 73 percent. At the same time, 13 percent of Americans across all demographic groups are relying solely on smartphones for home internet access. Given that Americans use both fixed and mobile broadband technologies, we seek comment on whether we should evaluate the deployment of fixed and mobile broadband as separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability... Alternatively, we seek comment on whether we should evaluate the deployment based on the presence of both fixed and mobile services... We seek comment on the appropriate benchmark for fixed advanced telecommunications capability. Should we maintain the 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload (25 Mbps/3 Mbps) speed benchmark, and to apply it to all forms of fixed broadband?... The [FCC] has not previously set a mobile speed benchmark... Should the Commission set a mobile speed benchmark, and if so, what it should be? We anticipate that any speed benchmark we set would be lower than the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark adopted for fixed broadband services, given differing capabilities of mobile broadband... We seek comment on whether a mobile speed benchmark of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps is appropriate for mobile broadband services. Would a download speed benchmark higher or lower than 10 Mbps be appropriate for the purpose of assessing American consumers’ access to advanced telecommunications capability?"

A subsequent FCC document extended the comment period. The first deadline for the public -- you -- to submit comments ended Thursday, September 21, 2017. The next deadline for comments is October 6, 2017. You can still submit comments to the FCC until October 6 during the reply comment period (Filing 17-199).

To recap the decision: the FCC could use two different standards (one for fixed internet and a second for wireless internet), or go with a lower, lower standard which (supposedly) accommodates both.

Some readers are probably wondering: a lower broadband standard seems like taking the country backwards. During both the 2016 campaign and after entering office, President Trump promised to improve the country's crumbling infrastructure. Faster internet seems to be a pretty damn important part of the country's infrastructure. And, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the new Chairman at the FCC, which gave Republicans a majority of the voting commissioners.

Ars Technica reported:

"Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn objected to parts of the Notice of Inquiry when it was released, saying that the home broadband speed standard should be raised and that mobile should not be considered a substitute for home Internet... Rosenworcel didn't make an official statement when the Notice of Inquiry was released because she wasn't on the commission at that time; she was sworn in for a new term just days later. She previously served on the FCC before a temporary departure caused by political haggling in the Senate."

Rosenworcel released a statement:

"... It’s time to dream big. This is the country that put a man on the moon. We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things — if we set big goals. So I believe we need big broadband goals... I am glad that last year we upped the ante and changed that threshold to 25 Megabits. I support the continued use of this standard today. But I think we need to go big and be bold. I think our new threshold should be 100 Megabits — and Gigabit speed should be in our sights. I believe anything short of goals like this shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy."

I agree with Rosenworcel. Moreover, the Pai-led FCC seems intent upon doing what corporate broadband services demand: roll back privacy, roll back net neutrality, and next a lower broadband standards. In 2015, Pai (then a commissioner) opposed the increase in standards.

The skeptic in me worries that a lower, slower standard allows corporate broadband providers to rely solely upon wireless to serve consumers and businesses -- especially those in rural areas. A single, lower standard allows broadband providers to take the foot off the gas pedal of building out the fixed broadband infrastructure -- the fiber-optic and other cabling we all use and need. In this scenario, consumers (yet again) take it on the chin with slower wireless speeds compared to a built-out fixed broadband infrastructure.

Those supporting a single, lower, slower broadband standard might as well yell: "We are number 16. Yeah!" What do you think?


A Greater Volume Of Bogus Email Messages

Have you checked your e-mail spam folder? Your e-mail provider's spam filter is a highly valuable tool which identifies and collects bogus, unwanted messages; which often either contain malware or link to sites which do. I happily use my e-mail provider's spam tool. It saves me plenty of time and aggravation.

You don't have to read the messages collected in your spam folder by your e-mail service. I do occasionally because I've taken my online security a step further. I configured the spam filter to trap all inbound messages not in my e-mail address book, and not only the messages it identified as spam. For me, nothing gets through unless I already know you. I don't want any of this garbage downloaded to my laptop's hard drive.

Call me extra careful.

Recently, when I scanned my spam folder I found a flood of messages up from three or five daily to 30 or 40. The subject lines of the bogus messages included a wide variety of offers: timeshare rentals, hair removal products, credit scores, credit cards, dating services, pet products, wrinkle removal products, home refinance loans, ink for computer printers, and much more. Often, the bogus messages pretended to be valid businesses, such as Amazon and Walmart. A partial list of the messages in my spam folder:

Partial list of messages in a spam folder. Click to view a larger version

Clearly, the spammers hope to trick users into opening these messages. Don't. Experts advise consumers not to reply to these bogus e-mails. If you do, you'll only get more.

If you know where to look, it's fairly easy to spot the spam. All of the messages include the same e-mail reply address. In this instance it is contact@cron-job.org. Unfortunately, Cron-Job is a valid business which did not send out this spam. According to the Denver Post:

"Cron-jobs is a non-profit organization supporting Cron, a Unix-software utility. The site was spoofed! Cron-jobs documents what happened here: cron-job.org/en/spam- statement... The messages are not from them, thus they cannot stop them. They don’t even use the “contact@cron-job.org” email... The messages are likely being sent on a bot-network. These are computers that have malware on them and their owners don’t know the machines were hijacked..."

So, a word to the wise. Regularly scan you computer (e.g., laptop, desktop, tablet, phone) to identify and remove malware. You don't want to contribute to the e-mail spam problem.

I noticed another sender's e-mail address generating lots of spam: XXXXXXXXXXXXaolea.us. The spammers vary the numbers and letters in the XXX portion of the e-mail address, but my e-mail service provider is skilled at identifying bogus messages.

Last, if you haven't activated the spam filter offered by your e-mail provider, now is a good time to do so.


Bloomberg: Equifax Had A Data Breach In March, Too. More Questions Result

Equifax logo According to news reports, Equifax experienced another data breach earlier this year before the massive data breach it announced on September 7th where criminals gained unauthorized access to Equifax's systems and computers from May through then end of July, 2017. Bloomberg reported:

"Equifax Inc. learned about a major breach of its computer systems in March -- almost five months before the date it has publicly disclosed, according to three people familiar with the situation... Equifax hired the security firm Mandiant on both occasions and may have believed it had the initial breach under control, only to have to bring the investigators back when it detected suspicious activity again on July 29, two of the people said..."

Two major data breaches? What's happening? A news report by Bank Info Security may clarify things:

"... the Bloomberg story is "attempting to connect two separate cybersecurity events and suggesting the earlier event went unreported." Instead, Equifax says the breach described by Bloomberg was a "security incident involving a payroll-related service." The incident, which Equifax refers to as the "March event," was reported to customers, affected individuals and regulators, as well as covered by the media, it says. "Mandiant has investigated both events and found no evidence that these two separate events or the attackers were related."

Equifax appears to refer a breach involving TALX its payroll, human resources, and tax services subsidiary formally known as Equifax Workforce Solutions. The Bank Info Security news report explained:

"In early March, Equifax began notifying individuals whose employers use TALX for payroll services that it had detected unauthorized access to its web-based portal. Employees use the TALX portal to access their W-2, which is the annual income reporting form that U.S. employees need to file their federal tax return. That's also a key document for fraudsters, because it puts them one step closer to being able to fraudulently file and claim a tax refund in someone else's name.

In the March attack, hackers had luck accessing TALX accounts by guessing registered users' personal questions, according to Equifax's breach notifications. By answering the questions correctly, fraudsters were able to reset a PIN needed to access an account. With the fresh PIN, they were able to obtain an electronic copy of victims' W-2. The unauthorized access incidents occurred between April 17, 2016, and March 29, 2017, Equifax says..."

It's frightening that the TALX breach went undetected for almost a year. Also, the Krebs On Security blog reported in May about the Equifax-TALX breach. However, the Bloomberg news report explored another hacking method criminals might have used in March:

"... one goal of the attackers was to use Equifax as a way into the computers of major banks, according to a fourth person familiar with the matter. This person said a large Canadian bank has determined that hackers claiming to sell celebrity profiles from Equifax on the dark web -- information that appears to be fraudulent, or recycled from other breaches -- did in fact steal the username and password for an application programming interface, or API, linking the bank’s back-end servers to Equifax.

According to the person and a Sept. 14 internal memo reviewed by Bloomberg, the gateway linked a test and development site used by the bank’s wealth management division to Equifax, allowing the two entities to share information digitally."

So, there was a breach in March. Was it the TALX hack, the hack via a bank, both, or something else? If the Bloomberg report is accurate, then the post-breach consequences listed probably apply:

"... will complicate the company’s efforts to explain a series of unusual stock sales by Equifax executives. If it’s shown that those executives did so with the knowledge that either or both breaches could damage the company, they could be vulnerable to charges of insider trading... New questions about Equifax’s timeline are also likely to become central to the crush of lawsuits being filed against the Atlanta-based company. Investigators and consumers alike want to know how a trusted custodian of so many Americans’ private data could let hackers gain access to the most important details of financial identity... the revelation of an earlier breach will likely raise questions for the company’s beleaguered executives over whether that [March] investigation was sufficiently thorough or if it was closed too soon. For example, Equifax has said that the hackers entered the company’s computer banks the second time through a flaw in the company’s web software that was known in March but not patched until the later activity was detected in July."

If true, then consumers are left with more questions: which bank(s)? What fixes have been implemented so this doesn't happen again? Why wasn't this disclosed sooner? How many consumers were affected? Exactly how did the hackers gain access? Was it the same or a different group of hackers? Which consumers' data elements were accessed/stolen?

The cynic in me wonders if Equifax executives are using its TALX breach as cover -- to avoid having to admit to another massive (and embarrassing) data breach.

Regardless of which news report is accurate, there are plenty of reasons for consumers to feel uneasy about Equifax's breach(es), data security protections, and breach notifications. Equifax is a custodian of extremely valuable and sensitive information about consumers. It makes money selling that information to potential lenders, and consumers have a right to have their questions answered fully.

Maybe the various investigations and inquiry by 31 states will provide answers for consumers. Or maybe Congress needs to hold hearings. It's been done before. What do you think?


Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, is part of its Machine Bias series. After being contacted by ProPublica, Facebook removed several anti-Semitic ad categories and it no longer allows advertisers to target groups based upon self-reported information. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Julia Angwin, Madeleine Varner, and Ariana Tobin - ProPublica

Facebook logo Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally? Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform had the right audience for you.

Until last week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

“There are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards,” said Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook. “In this case, we’ve removed the associated targeting fields in question. We know we have more work to do, so we’re also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future.”

Facebook’s advertising has become a focus of national attention since it disclosed last week that it had discovered $100,000 worth of ads placed during the 2016 presidential election season by “inauthentic” accounts that appeared to be affiliated with Russia.

Like many tech companies, Facebook has long taken a hands off approach to its advertising business. Unlike traditional media companies that select the audiences they offer advertisers, Facebook generates its ad categories automatically based both on what users explicitly share with Facebook and what they implicitly convey through their online activity.

Traditionally, tech companies have contended that it’s not their role to censor the Internet or to discourage legitimate political expression. In the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville by right-wing groups that included self-described Nazis, Facebook and other tech companies vowed to strengthen their monitoring of hate speech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time that “there is no place for hate in our community,” and pledged to keep a closer eye on hateful posts and threats of violence on Facebook. “It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But Facebook apparently did not intensify its scrutiny of its ad buying platform. In all likelihood, the ad categories that we spotted were automatically generated because people had listed those anti-Semitic themes on their Facebook profiles as an interest, an employer or a “field of study.” Facebook’s algorithm automatically transforms people’s declared interests into advertising categories.

Here is a screenshot of our ad buying process on the company’s advertising portal:

Screenshot of Facebook ad buying process

This is not the first controversy over Facebook’s ad categories. Last year, ProPublica was able to block an ad that we bought in Facebook’s housing categories from being shown to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, raising the question of whether such ad targeting violated laws against discrimination in housing advertising. After ProPublica’s article appeared, Facebook built a system that it said would prevent such ads from being approved.

Last year, ProPublica also collected a list of the advertising categories Facebook was providing to advertisers. We downloaded more than 29,000 ad categories from Facebook’s ad system — and found categories ranging from an interest in “Hungarian sausages” to “People in households that have an estimated household income of between $100K and $125K.”

At that time, we did not find any anti-Semitic categories, but we do not know if we captured all of Facebook’s possible ad categories, or if these categories were added later. A Facebook spokesman didn’t respond to a question about when the categories were introduced.

Two weeks ago, acting on a tip, we logged into Facebook’s automated ad system to see if “Jew hater” was really an ad category. We found it, but discovered that the category — with only 2,274 people in it — was too small for Facebook to allow us to buy an ad pegged only to Jew haters.

Facebook’s automated system suggested “Second Amendment” as an additional category that would boost our audience size to 119,000 people, presumably because its system had correlated gun enthusiasts with anti-Semites.

Instead, we chose additional categories that popped up when we typed in “jew h”: “How to burn Jews,” and “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Then we added a category that Facebook suggested when we typed in “Hitler”: a category called “Hitler did nothing wrong.” All were described as “fields of study.”

These ad categories were tiny. Only two people were listed as the audience size for “how to burn jews,” and just one for “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’” Another 15 people comprised the viewership for “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Facebook’s automated system told us that we still didn’t have a large enough audience to make a purchase. So we added “German Schutzstaffel,” commonly known as the Nazi SS, and the “Nazi Party,” which were both described to advertisers as groups of “employers.” Their audiences were larger: 3,194 for the SS and 2,449 for Nazi Party.

Still, Facebook said we needed more — so we added people with an interest in the National Democratic Party of Germany, a far-right, ultranationalist political party, with its much larger viewership of 194,600.

Once we had our audience, we submitted our ad — which promoted an unrelated ProPublica news article. Within 15 minutes, Facebook approved our ad, with one change. In its approval screen, Facebook described the ad targeting category “Jew hater” as “Antysemityzm,” the Polish word for anti-Semitism. Just to make sure it was referring to the same category, we bought two additional ads using the term “Jew hater” in combination with other terms. Both times, Facebook changed the ad targeting category “Jew hater” to “Antisemityzm” in its approval.

Here is one of our approved ads from Facebook:

Screenshot of approved Facebook ad for ProPublica

A few days later, Facebook sent us the results of our campaigns. Our three ads reached 5,897 people, generating 101 clicks, and 13 “engagements” — which could be a “like” a “share” or a comment on a post.

Since we contacted Facebook, most of the anti-Semitic categories have disappeared.

Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said that they didn’t appear to have been widely used. “We have looked at the use of these audiences and campaigns and it’s not common or widespread,” he said.

We looked for analogous advertising categories for other religions, such as “Muslim haters.” Facebook didn’t have them.

Update, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to include the Facebook spokesman's name.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Experts Say the Use of Private Email by Trump’s Voter Fraud Commission Isn’t Legal

[Editor's note: today's guest post is by the reporters at ProPublica. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Jessica Huseman, ProPublica

President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission came under fire earlier this month when a lawsuit and media reports revealed that the commissioners were using private emails to conduct public business. Commission co-chair Kris Kobach confirmed this week that most of them continue to do so.

Experts say the commission’s email practices do not appear to comport with federal law. "The statute here is clear," said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle and former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Essentially, Baron said, the commissioners have three options: 1. They can use a government email address; 2. They can use a private email address but copy every message to a government account; or 3. They can use a private email address and forward each message to a government account within 20 days. According to Baron, those are the requirements of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which the commission must comply with under its charter.

"All written communications between or among its members involving commission business are permanent records destined to be preserved at the National Archives," said Baron. "Without specific guidance, commission members may not realize that their email communications about commission business constitute White House records."

ProPublica reviewed dozens of emails to and from members of the commission as well as written directives on records retention. The commissioners appear to have been given no instructions to use government email or copy or forward messages to a government account.

Commissioner Matthew Dunlap, the secretary of state for Maine, confirmed that he’d received no such directives. "That’s news to me," he said, when read the PRA provision governing emails. "I think it would be a little cleaner if I had a us.gov email account."

Dunlap’s account is disputed by Andrew Kossack, the executive director of the commission. Kossack said attorneys from the Government Services Administration provided training on the PRA before the commission’s first meeting on July 19. Kossack provided a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. However, the word "email" appears in only a single slide — with no mention of anything relating to the use of government email.

Notably, the commission did not receive any training in records retention until the July 19 meeting, even though the commission was formed in May and had been actively engaged in commission business.

Indeed, the commission had kicked into high gear on June 28, when it sent a letter to all 50 secretaries of state requesting publicly available voter rolls. The response was swift and negative, and commissioners began receiving a wave of messages from election officials and the public.

Despite this, the commissioners were offered no instructions then on how to preserve communications. Baron said such messages would presumptively be considered presidential records, and "the obligation to preserve such records would have arisen on day one."

In a statement, Kossack denied there is an obligation to provide commissioners with government email addresses. He maintained that the commission is required only to "preserve emails and other records related to work on commission matters, regardless of the forum on which the records are created or sent, which the commission and its members are doing."

After the commission’s most recent meeting, on Tuesday, Kobach confirmed that he plans to continue to use his personal Gmail account to conduct commission business. Using his Kansas secretary of state email address, he said, would be a "waste of state resources" as he’s acting as a private citizen on the commission and not in his role as secretary of state.

Dunlap has interpreted the requirements differently. He’s trying to ensure his state email account is used so that emails can be made available to constituents under Maine state law. Even this is a struggle, he said, asserting that commissioners continue to email him at his personal account despite multiple requests that they send email to his government account.

"I really don’t understand why they keep using my personal Gmail account instead of my official state email. But I’m saving everything!" Dunlap wrote to himself on August 7, when he forwarded a communication from the commission to his government address. He has, it appears, continued to immediately forward all emails sent to his personal address by the commission to his state address.

At ProPublica’s request, Dunlap shared every email he has received or sent relating to the commission. The majority went to personal email accounts.

At their recent meeting in New Hampshire, Kossack provided commissioners printed instructions on how to retain their own emails related to a lawsuit filed against the commission by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Dunlap said these instructions are the only written set of instructions on records retention he recalls receiving. (The instructions leave records retention entirely to the discretion of each member of the commission, which Dunlap said concerns him.)

Past commissions with similar missions were not allowed such wide discretion. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, formed by the Obama administration in March 2013, provided ethics and records retention training days after commissioners were nominated. Each commissioner was provided with a federal email address that automatically archived all messages. PCEA documents show extensive, specific instructions on records retention and compliance with FACA.

Richard Painter, who served as the George W. Bush administration’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, expressed shock that the current commission is being allowed to rely on personal email accounts (which are to be forwarded to Kossack at their discretion). "This is just sloppy," he said, adding that waiting more than two months to offer ethics training was just another sign that the Trump administration "doesn’t take ethics training seriously."

One footnote: Among the emails provided by Dunlap was a message from Carter Page, a former policy adviser to the Trump campaign who has reportedly attracted the attention of investigators probing the Russia imbroglio. Page sent an email on July 5 to three accounts associated with Kobach and cc’d Dunlap, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. In it, he implored the commission to investigate "the Obama administration’s misuse of federal resources of the Intelligence Community in their unjustified attacks on myself and other volunteers who peacefully supported [Trump’s] campaign as private citizens."

"The work of your commission offers an essential opportunity to take further steps toward helping to further restore the integrity of the American democracy following their abuses of last year," he wrote.

There is no evidence this email was forwarded to a federal email account. Page, Kossack and Kobach did not respond to requests for comment about the email.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


31 States Sent Joint Letter Demanding Equifax Provide Free Services And Better Support For Consumers

On Friday, September 15, the attorneys general in several states sent a joint letter to Equifax as a result of the credit reporting agency's response to a massive data breach affecting about 143 million persons in the United States. The participating attorneys general are concerned about the impacts and costs to consumers. They want Equifax to respond better to the needs of consumers, extend the duration of the sign-up period for breach victims, and waive the fees of certain services. Perhaps most importantly, they are concerned about Equifax benefiting unjustly due to a situation it created.

The joint letter explained:

"... Chief among the issues causing confusion and concern are the inclusion of terms of service that required consumers to waive their rights, the offer of competing fee-based and free credit monitoring services by Equifax, and the charges consumers incur for a security freeze with other credit monitoring companies like Experian, TransUnion, and Innovis.

Initially, in order to enroll in the free credit monitoring that Equifax offered to all Americans, it appeared that Equifax attached certain conditions to the offer, including mandatory arbitration, among other things. The fact that Equifax’s own conduct created the need for these services demands that they be offered to consumers without tying the offer to complicated terms of service that may require them to forgo certain rights. It was not until after urging from our offices and public condemnation that Equifax withdrew these objectionable terms from its offer of free credit monitoring.

We remain concerned that Equifax continues to market its fee-based services to consumers affected by its data breach. Consumers who view Equifax’s homepage are offered both Equifax fee-based credit monitoring services, as well as its services offered at no cost. Again, at the urging of our offices and following criticism in the media, Equifax made its offer of free credit monitoring services more prominent so that it can be more easily found by consumers. Although these changes are an improvement over the site’s original offering, which presented a much less prominent link when compared to Equifax’s fee-based offering, they do not address all of our concerns.

We believe continuing to offer consumers a fee-based service in addition to Equifax’s free monitoring services will serve to only confuse consumers who are already struggling to make decisions on how to best protect themselves in the wake of this massive breach. We object to Equifax seemingly using its own data breach as an opportunity to sell services to breach victims. Selling a fee-based product that competes with Equifax’s own free offer of credit monitoring services to victims of Equifax’s own data breach is unfair, particularly if consumers are not sure if their information was compromised.

Equifax cannot reap benefits from confused consumers who are likely only visiting Equifax’s homepage because they are concerned about whether the breach affects them and their families. If there is any substantial benefit consumers can obtain by purchasing the fee-based services over the free credit monitoring, then we strongly suggest that Equifax upgrade its free credit monitoring service to provide equivalent protection. On the other hand, if the services are equivalent, then we fail to understand why Equifax continues to offer its fee-based services to those affected by the breach if equivalent services are obtainable at no cost. Either way, we request that Equifax disable links to its fee-based services until the sign-up period for the free service has ended. Additionally, the cutoff date of November 21, 2017 for consumers to avail themselves of the free services provided appears to us to be rather short-sighted and we suggest that date be extended to at least January 31, 2018.

Our offices are also receiving complaints from proactive consumers who have requested a security freeze. Although Equifax is not charging consumers a fee for its own security freeze service, these consumers are furious that they have been forced to pay for a security freeze with other companies, such as Experian and TransUnion, when this privacy breach was no fault of their own. We agree with these consumers that it is indefensible that they be forced to pay fees to fully protect themselves from the fallout of Equifax’s data breach.

Accordingly, we believe Equifax should, at a minimum, be taking steps to reimburse consumers who incur fees to completely freeze their credit..."

The participating attorneys general are from Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Read the announcement by Christopher S. Porrino, the State of New Jersey Attorney General. A copy of the joint letter is also available here (Adobe PDF).


The Equifax Breach: Several Investigations Underway

The Office of the Attorney General (AG) for the State of Nevada announced yesterday an investigation into the Equifax data breach. About 143 million persons were affected. The announcement stated:

"The breach, which took place from mid-May through July of this year, neglected to keep important personal identifying information safe and allowed hackers to access names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even some driver’s license numbers. As a result of this breach, approximately 209,000 individuals throughout the country are estimated to have had their credit card numbers stolen."

Nevada AG Adam Paul Laxalt said:

"As a part of my commitment to safeguard the identities and personal information of Nevadans, my office will be working diligently with other states to investigate the cause of the Equifax breach... I encourage Nevadans to contact Equifax to determine whether their data was compromised, and to consider taking additional steps to protect themselves."

The statement did not mention the other states the Nevada AG's Office is working with. Residents of Nevada should read the announcement which lists specific actions consumers in that state should take to protect themselves.

The Attorney General for the State of New York announced on September 8 both an investigation into the Equifax data breach and a consumer alert:

"Under New York law, businesses with New York customers are required to inform customers and the Attorney General’s Office about security breaches that have placed personal information in jeopardy. The Attorney General’s Office investigates data breaches to determine if customers were properly notified of the breach and if the entity had appropriate safeguards in place to protect customers’ data..."

The consumer alert portion of the announcement:

"1) Check your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by visiting annualcreditreport.com. Accounts or activity that you do not recognize could indicate identity theft. This is a free service; 2) Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. It will not prevent a thief from using any of your existing accounts; 3) Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for unauthorized charges. Call the credit card company or bank immediately about any charges you do not recognize; and 4) Since Social Security numbers were affected, there is risk of tax fraud. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Consider filing your taxes early and pay close attention to correspondence from the IRS."

Annulacreditreport.com is the official site for free credit reports.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued new rules in 2010 which addressed consumer confusion in the marketplace about sites offering free credit reports. When using unofficial sites, some consumers found the "free" credit reports weren't truly free because they included expensive subscriptions to credit monitoring services.

On September 11, the New York AG's issued a warning about cyber attacks resulting from the Equifax breach:

"In addition to taking measures to protect their credit cards and bank accounts, New Yorkers should also think twice before clicking on any suspicious [e-mail] links claiming to be from Equifax or financial institutions... Hackers are resourceful criminals who are constantly looking to exploit any vulnerabilities... New Yorkers should be on the lookout for these possible attacks: a) Phishing emails that claim to be from Equifax where you can check if your data was compromised; b) Phishing emails that claim there is a problem with a credit card, your credit record, or other personal financial information; c) Calls from scammers that claim they are from your bank or credit union..."

Also, the Los Angeles Times confirmed an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

"The FTC’s disclosure of an ongoing probe is highly unusual, underscoring the enormous stakes involved in the incident affecting what amounts to half the country."

The news report cited comments by Peter Kaplan, the agency’s acting director of public affairs. So far, little is known which aspects of the breach the FTC is investigating.

No doubt, there is more news to come.


What Sources Do You Use For Balanced, Unbiased News?

A friend asked the following on the Facebook social networking site:

"Who would you consider to be the most balanced, bi-partisan or "fair" news source for American politics?"

My response: there is no single, balanced source. There are no shortcuts. It takes time and effort to stay informed.

There's no substitute for consumers actively reading a variety of sources. I read news wires (Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters, McClatchy DC), some "left" leaning sources (e.g., The New York Times, National Public Radio, Slate), some "right" leaning sources (e.g., Fox News, Breitbart News), and foreign sources (e.g., BBC, Guardian UK).

For news about a specific federal, state, or local government agency I visit that agency's website: Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Department of Justice (DOJ), Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Department of Labor (DOL), and the attorney general in each state.

One needs a variety of news sources in order to maintain a WORLD view... and not a myopic USA-only view... and not a myopic view slanted by a political party. With so much free content online, there is no excuse for consumers to read a variety of sources.

A key problem I often see in sites claiming to be news sites: video content without accompanying transcripts.. This is poor reporting for several reasons. First, transcripts provide readers with the opportunity to fact check, check spelling, and follow embedded links to learn more. Some might call that critical thinking. I view sites which fail to provide transcripts with video as untrustworthy.

Second, the lack of transcripts favors sighted readers. Some online users have disabilities (e.g., blind, hearing loss). The lack of video transcripts makes it difficult to impossible for them to consume this content. Maybe this is a by-product of the "mobile first design" strategy with website development. Or maybe it is plain laziness. Regardless, it's unacceptable.

I found it somewhat unsettling that the person asking this question used "who" instead of "what." That may imply a personality-driven or celebrity-focused view of news sources.

What do you think? What do you read?


Equifax Data Breach: 11 Reasons Why It Is Worse Than You Think

Equifax logo Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, announced on September 7 a massive data breach where criminals accessed the company's computer systems. How bad is it? It is instructive to analyze the text of Equifax's breach announcement:

"... a cybersecurity incident potentially impacting approximately 143 million U.S. consumers. Criminals exploited a U.S. website application vulnerability to gain access to certain files. Based on the company's investigation, the unauthorized access occurred from mid-May through July 2017. The company has found no evidence of unauthorized activity on Equifax's core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.

The information accessed primarily includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers. In addition, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 U.S. consumers, and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers, were accessed."

First, this is huge. Do the math 143 million persons is about 44 percent of the United States population of 325 million on July 4, 2017. So, almost half of the population was affected. Not good. But, there's more to this than size.

Second, the announcement stated "approximately." So, the true number could be lower or higher. The vagueness suggests that Equifax doesn't really know exactly how many consumers were affected. Not good. And, other details support this assumption that Equifax really doesn't know.

Third, the announcement stated "accessed." During the 10+ years I've written this blog, I've read dozens or hundreds of breach announcements. Many use this term. While the term may accurately describe what's Equifax knows, it also can be misleading. Criminals don't access companies' systems simply to window-shop or read files. They access systems to download and steal valuable information they can either use to make money, or resell to others. It's what online criminals do.

Fourth, the data elements accessed stolen allow criminals to do a lot of damage. That might include: a) obtain fraudulent loans or credit in breach victims' names; b) impersonate breach victims (it's called pretexting) to access online accounts; c) with online access withdraw money from victims' bank accounts; and much more. With online access, criminals can change passwords and take over victims' accounts effectively locking out victims.

Fifth, the breach investigation isn't finished:

"Equifax discovered the unauthorized access on July 29 of this year and acted immediately to stop the intrusion. The company promptly engaged a leading, independent cybersecurity firm that has been conducting a comprehensive forensic review to determine the scope of the intrusion, including the specific data impacted. Equifax also reported the criminal access to law enforcement and continues to work with authorities. While the company's investigation is substantially complete, it remains ongoing and is expected to be completed in the coming weeks."

The announcement didn't state when Equifax expected the investigation to be finished. Days? Weeks? Months? Not good.

Equifax hired an outside, independent technology firm to investigate its breach. That's what companies usually do during their post-breach response. This tiny bit of good news is quickly overshadowed by the bad. Without a completed breach investigation, Equifax can't really know whether the breach was caused by a technical systems problem, employee error, management oversight lapses, a sloppy or incompetent subcontractor, something else, or a combination of items. Only after a completed breach investigation can Equifax implement one or several fixes so this won't happen again. Not good.

Sixth, without knowing how criminals accessed their systems it is unlikely Equifax also can't know with certainty what data elements about consumers were stolen. More data elements could have been stolen, perhaps entire credit reports. Not good.

Seventh, it seems that Equifax's intrusion detection systems failed. Just look at the timeline. The breach started in mid-May and Equifax discovered it near the end of July. So, criminals had at least 2 full months to steal whatever they could find. Not good. Plus, after discovering the breach it would take Equifax another 5 weeks later to announce it. Why the delays? The breach announcement doesn't explain why. Not good.

Eighth, Equifax seems to take shortcuts with its breach notification:

"Equifax has established a dedicated website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, to help consumers determine if their information has been potentially impacted and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection."

Setting up a website to convey breach updates to consumers is a good thing, but using the site to notify consumers about the breach is not good for two reasons: a) the site requires consumers to enter many of the same sensitive, valuable data elements criminals want to steal; and b) it forces consumers to trust that the breach site is secure, when we know that the breach investigation is incomplete. This is a breach notification failure.

In the 10+ years I've written this blog, trustworthy companies notify breach victims via postal mail. Why won't Equifax notify all breach victims directly via postal mail? It has consumers' residential addresses in its databases. (That is a benefit for its lending customers.) So, the lack of data is not an excuse. Plus, the credit reporting agency is willing to notify some consumers directly:

"In addition to the website, Equifax will send direct mail notices to consumers whose credit card numbers or dispute documents with personal identifying information were impacted."

Rather than notify all breach victims directly, Equifax seems to want to take shortcuts. Maybe it is to save money, laziness, or poor decisions by its executives. The announcement doesn't explain why, so consumers are left to draw their own conclusions. Not good.

Ninth, technologists have questioned the security of Equifax's new breach site. Ars Technica reported:

"... the website www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/, which Equifax created to notify people of the breach, is highly problematic for a variety of reasons. It runs on a stock installation WordPress, a content management system that doesn't provide the enterprise-grade security required for a site that asks people to provide their last name and all but three digits of their Social Security number. The TLS certificate doesn't perform proper revocation checks. Worse still, the domain name isn't registered to Equifax, and its format looks like precisely the kind of thing a criminal operation might use to steal people's details..."

Reportedly, the domain name registration problem was fixed on Sunday. Still, Equifax's post-breach response appears amateurish. Meanwhile, data security problems persisted in its main website. According to Ars Technica:

"... in the hours immediately following the breach disclosure, the main Equifax website was displaying debug codes, which for security reasons, is something that should never happen on any production server, especially one that is a server or two away from so much sensitive data. A mistake this serious does little to instill confidence company engineers have hardened the site against future devastating attacks."

So, Equifax hasn't completed its breach investigation, doesn't know how its systems were hacked, has vulnerabilities in its main site, but wants consumers to trust that its breach site is secure. Not good.

Tenth, the Equifax announcement promoted its credit monitoring service (emphasis added):

"Equifax has established a dedicated website... to help consumers determine if their information has been potentially impacted and to sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection. The offering, called TrustedID Premier, includes 3-Bureau credit monitoring of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit reports; copies of Equifax credit reports; the ability to lock and unlock Equifax credit reports; identity theft insurance; and Internet scanning for Social Security numbers - all complimentary to U.S. consumers for one year."

One year? Are Equifax executives serious? Stolen consumers' credentials don't magically lose value after one year. Criminals will use stolen credentials (e.g., name, address, Social Security Number, birth date, etc.) as long as they can. Criminals will resell stolen data to other criminals as long as the data has value. In my opinion, Equifax should provide complimentary lifetime credit monitoring indefinitely to all breach victims.

Why lifetime? Because the data elements accessed stolen have ongoing value. The cynical part of me wonders if some finance executives have done the math. As long as credit reporting agency executives believe that one year of free credit monitoring will appease breach victims, it's cheaper to pay that cost (plus a few out-of-court settlements), rather than implement more robust data security.

Eleventh, there is a history of questionable decisions by Equifax executives. In 2007, it paid a $2.7 million fine for violating federal credit laws. In 2009, it paid a $65,000 fine to the state of Indiana for violating the state's security freeze law. In 2012, Equifax and some of its customers paid $1.6 million to settle allegations of improper list sales. Earlier this year, Equifax and TransUnion paid $23.1 million to settle allegations of deceptive advertising about credit scores.

This history provides some context to news reports that three Equifax executives sold about $1.8 million in stock after the breach was discovered and before the public breach announcement. Equifax stock fell about 13 percent after the breach announcement. The company said on Thursday that these executives didn't know about the intrusion when they sold shares. Even if true, the optics of this look absolutely terrible.

The whole sordid affair should be a reminder to consumers that we are the product. Credit reporting agencies' true customers are lenders - the companies that lend money and make loans to consumers. Equifax makes its money selling credit reports to lenders.

What to make of this? I see several considerations for consumers:

  1. Assume the worst. Every time you hear or read the word "accessed" by Equifax, replace it with "stolen." Then, make your data security decisions accordingly.
  2. If you don't trust the security of Equifax's breach site, then call the company instead via the hotline listed in the breach announcement (preferably using a landline phone) to see if you are affected.
  3. Carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of Equifax's offer of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection. Equifax has been criticized for forcing arbitration on consumers who accept the free credit monitoring offer. In a September 11th update in its breach site, Equifax reversed course and said the arbitration clause and class-action waiver don't apply in this incident. Regardless, read the fine print before signing up. They may try to re-insert it later. If you don't know what it is, learn about arbitration. A variety of companies have inserted these clauses into their user agreements policies. You'll need to learn about arbitration anyway in order to make informed purchase decisions about other products and services.
  4. If you don't need credit, consider a Security Freeze to lock down your Equifax credit reports. Then, Equifax can't sell your credit report to lenders. You can do this at all three major credit reporting agencies. I did this several years ago after a data breach by a former employer. Know that a Security Freeze is not a cure-all, since it won't stop data breaches and it won't stop all forms of identity theft and fraud. To learn more, this blog has plenty of information about credit reporting agencies, credit monitoring services, fraud alerts for your credit reports, and security freezes.
  5. If you dislike Equifax's post-breach response, then contact your elected officials and demand that they pressure Equifax to do the right thing: a) notify all breach victims directly via postal mail; and b) implement better data security.
  6. Equifax's post-breach response makes me question whether the company is really up to the data security task -- it's responsibility -- to adequately protect consumers' sensitive information. All credit reporting agencies are high-value targets by criminals. If Equifax's executives didn't understand this before, they should now -- and take actions to demonstrate to consumers they realize the seriousness of the breach. Words are not enough.
  7. Consumers lack choices. Citizens cannot opt in nor opt out of the data collection by credit reporting agencies. (Consumers can opt out of pre-approved credit offers, but can't opt out of the data collection. There's a difference.) Also, the Equifax breach highlights the hypocrisy of pundits and politicians who object to the mandate within Obamacare (e.g., the Affordable Care Act) legislation -- some called it socialism -- while remaining remain silent about a similarly socialistic mandate with credit reporting.

While writing a post recently about misdeeds at Wells Fargo, I asked the question: "How much damage can one bank do?" Now, I find myself asking a similar question about Equifax: "How much damage can one company do?" Credit and lending are essential to the United States economy. In my opinion, all credit reporting agencies should have NSA-level data security for their networks and computer systems. The data they archive is that critical.

And: if you can't protect it, don't collect it. It's that simple.

As more issues emerge about this breach, I will address them in subsequent posts. What are your opinions of the Equifax breach? Did you lock down your credit reports with a Security Freeze?


What We Know -- And Don't Know -- About Hate Crimes in America

[Editor's Note: today's guest blog post explores the problem of hate crimes. Recent surveys about harassment found that what happens online often doesn't stay online. Hopefully, future reports by ProPublica will explore the linkages. Today's blog post is reprinted with permission.]

By Rachel Glickhouse, ProPublica

"Go home. We need Americans here!" white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian yelled at two black women -- one wearing a hijab -- on a train in Portland, Oregon, in May. According to news reports, when several commuters tried to intervene, he went on a rampage, stabbing three people. Two of them died.

If the fatal stabbing was the worst racist attack in Portland this year, it was by no means the only one. In March, Buzzfeed reported on hate incidents in Oregon and the state's long history as a haven for white supremacists. Some of the incidents they found were gathered by Documenting Hate, a collaborative journalism project we launched earlier this year.

Documenting Hate is an attempt to overcome the inadequate data collection on hate crimes and bias incidents in America. We've been compiling incident reports from civil-rights groups, as well as news reports, social media and law enforcement records. We've also asked people to tell us their personal stories of witnessing or being the victim of hate.

It's been about six months since the project launched. Since then, we've been joined by more than 100 newsrooms around the country. Together, we're verifying the incidents that have been reported to us -- and telling people's stories.

We've received thousands of reports, with more coming every day. They come from cities big and small, and from states blue and red. People have reported hate incidents from every part of their communities: in schools, on the road, at private businesses, in the workplace. ProPublica and our partners have produced more than 50 stories using the tips from the database, from New York to Seattle, Minneapolis to Phoenix. Some examples:

Univision, HuffPost, and The New York Times opinion section identified a common thread in the reports we've received in which people of color are harassed "Go back to your country." This type of harassment affects both immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, reporters found.

Several stories published by our partners focused on racial harassment on public transportation, using tips to illustrate something officials were also seeing. The New York City Commission on Human Rights observed a 480 percent increase in claims of discriminatory harassment between 2015 and 2016, according to The New York Times Opinion section. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recorded 24 cases of offensive graffiti through April, compared to 35 in all of last year, the Boston Globe found. Univision covered multiple incidents involving Latinos targeted in incidents on the New York City subway.

Combing through our database, Buzzfeed discovered there were dozens of reported incidents in K-12 schools in which students cited President Donald Trump's name or slogans to harass minority classmates. This echoed a pattern Univision had reported on: In November, the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center received more than 10,000 responses to an educator survey indicating an uptick in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant activity in schools.

Our local partners reported on how hate incidents affect communities across the country: anti-Semitic graffiti in Phoenix, Islamophobia in Minneapolis, racist vandalism and homophobic threats in Seattle, white supremacist activity at a California university, racist harassment and vandalism in Boston, racism in the workplace in New Orleans, and hate incidents throughout Florida.

There are a few questions for which answers continue to elude us: How many hate crimes happen each year, and why is the record keeping so inadequate?

The FBI, which is required to track hate crimes, counts between 5,000 and 6,000 of them annually. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the total is closer to 250,000. One explanation for the gap is that many victims -- more than half, according to a recent estimate -- don't report what happened to them to police.

Even if they do, law enforcement agencies aren't all required to report to the FBI, meaning their reports might never make it into the national tally. The federal government is hardly a model of best practices; many federal agencies don't report their data, either -- even though they're legally required to do so.

We'll spend the next six months continuing to tackle these questions and more. And we and our partners will keep working our way through the tips in our database, telling people's stories and doing our best to understand what's happening.

There are ways that you can help us move the project forward:

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Wells Fargo: 1.4 Million More Fake Accounts Found By Latest Investigation

Wells Fargo logo Just before the long holiday weekend, Wells Fargo Bank announced in an August 31 news release the latest results of a third-party investigation into its retail bank account practices since 2009:

"The original account analysis reviewed 93.5 million current and former customer accounts opened in an approximately four and half year time period – from May 2011 through mid-2015 – and identified approximately 2.1 million potentially unauthorized accounts. The expanded analysis reviewed more than 165 million retail banking accounts opened over a nearly eight-year period – from January 2009 through September 2016 – and identified a new total of approximately 3.5 million potentially unauthorized consumer and small business accounts... In connection with these 3.5 million potentially unauthorized accounts, approximately 190,000 accounts incurred fees and charges, up from 130,000 previously identified accounts that incurred fees and charges, and Wells Fargo will provide a total of $2.8 million in additional refunds and credits on top of the $3.3 million previously refunded as a result of the original account review... a review of online bill pay services, as required by the Sept. 8, 2016, consent orders... the analysis identified approximately 528,000 potentially unauthorized online bill pay enrollments and Wells Fargo will refund $910,000 to customers who incurred fees or charges. "

To summarize: the latest investigation went two years further back in time, found about 1.4 million more phony accounts, found more customers affected by unauthorized bank accounts, and found possibly more phony online bill-pay enrollments. In a settlement agreement last year with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Wells Fargo paid a $185 million fine last year for alleged unlawful sales practices with the number of phony accounts known then.

Of course, the bank tried a different spin in its news release about the investigation's findings:

"... the completion of its previously announced expanded third-party review of retail banking accounts dating back to the beginning of 2009. Combined with a recent class action settlement and ongoing broad customer outreach and complaint resolution, the completion of the analysis further paves the way for making things right for Wells Fargo customers who may have been harmed by unacceptable retail sales practices."

Yeah, right. That sounds like some wayward teenager wanting praise for providing a complete list of damage to the family car which they didn't have permission nor a license to drive in the first place.

Much of Wall Street has seen through the spin. Some financial experts advise investors to sell Well Fargo shares and buy other banks' shares instead. One of the world's largest fund managers withheld support for three of the bank's directors. Some news headlines focused on the growing estimate of phony accounts uncovered. MSN Money listed reasons why the bank may not survive the growing scandal.

There is plenty of bad news. The Los Angels Times reported a lawsuit by former bank executives who claimed they were scapegoated and fired earlier this year after reporting unethical sales practices. News reports broke earlier this month about alleged insurance abuses of the bank's auto-loan customers.

Well, we now know more about the bank's retail banking practices. The latest announcement makes one wonder, a) how much damage one bank can do, and b) how many more phony accounts would have been uncovered if the investigation started before 2009. What are your opinions?