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How $100M in Jobless Claims Went to Inmates

The U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general said this week that roughly $100 million in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims were paid in 2020 to criminals who are already in jail. That’s a tiny share of the estimated tens of billions of dollars in jobless benefits states have given to identity thieves in the past year. To help reverse that trend, many states are now turning to a little-known private company called ID.me. This post examines some of what that company is seeing in its efforts to stymie unemployment fraud.

These prisoners tried to apply for jobless benefits. Personal information from the inmate IDs has been redacted. Image: ID.me

A new report (PDF) from the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that from March through October of 2020, some $3.5 billion in fraudulent jobless benefits — nearly two-thirds of the phony claims it reviewed — was paid out to individuals with Social Security numbers filed in multiple states. Almost $100 million went to more than 13,000 ineligible people who are currently in prison.

The OIG acknowledges that the total losses from all states is likely to be tens of billions of dollars. Indeed, just one state — California — disclosed last month that hackers, identity thieves and overseas criminal rings stole more than $11 billion in jobless benefits from the state last year. That’s roughly 10 percent of all claims.

Bloomberg Law reports that in response to a flood of jobless claims that exploit the lack of information sharing among states, the Labor Dept. urged the states to use a federally funded hub designed to share applicant data and detect fraudulent claims filed in more than one state. But as the OIG report notes, participation in the hub is voluntary, and so far only 32 of 54 state or territory workforce agencies in the U.S. are using it.

Much of this fraud exploits weak authentication methods used by states that have long sought to verify applicants using static, widely available information such as Social Security numbers and birthdays. Many states also lacked the ability to tell when multiple payments were going to the same bank accounts.

To make matters worse, as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold a number of states dramatically pared back the amount of information required to successfully request a jobless benefits claim.

77,000 NEW (AB)USERS EACH DAY

In response, 15 states have now allied with McLean, Va.-based ID.me to shore up their authentication efforts, with six more states under contract to use the service in the coming months. That’s a minor coup for a company launched in 2010 with the goal of helping e-commerce sites validate the identities of customers for the purposes of granting discounts for veterans, teachers, students, nurses and first responders.

ID.me says it now has more than 36 million people signed up for accounts, with roughly 77,000 new users signing up each day. Naturally, a big part of that growth has come from unemployed people seeking jobless benefits.

To screen out fraudsters, ID.me requires applicants to supply a great deal more information than previously requested by the states, such as images of their driver’s license or other government-issued ID, copies of utility or insurance bills, and details about their mobile phone service.

When an applicant doesn’t have one or more of the above — or if something about their application triggers potential fraud flags — ID.me may require a recorded, live video chat with the person applying for benefits.

This has led to some fairly amusing attempts to circumvent their verification processes, said ID.me founder and CEO Blake Hall. For example, it’s not uncommon for applicants appearing in the company’s video chat to don disguises. The Halloween mask worn by the applicant pictured below is just one example.

Image: ID.me

Hall said the company’s service is blocking a significant amount of “first party” fraud — someone using their own identity to file in multiple states where they aren’t eligible — as well as “third-party” fraud, where people are tricked into giving away identity data that thieves then use to apply for benefits.

“There’s literally every form of attack, from nation states and organized crime to prisoners,” Hall said. “It’s like the D-Day of fraud, this is Omaha Beach we’re on right now. The amount of fraud we are fighting is truly staggering.”

According to ID.me, a major driver of phony jobless claims comes from social engineering, where people have given away personal data in response to romance or sweepstakes scams, or after applying for what they thought was a legitimate work-from-home job.

“A lot of this is targeting the elderly,” Hall said. “We’ve seen [videos] of people in nursing homes, where folks off camera are speaking for them and holding up documents.”

“We had one video where the person applying said, ‘I’m here for the prize money,’” Hall continued. “Another elderly victim started weeping when they realized they weren’t getting a job and were the victim of a job scam. In general though, the job scam stuff hits younger people harder and the romance and prize money stuff hits elderly people harder.”

Many other phony claims are filed by people who’ve been approached by fraudsters promising them a cut of any unemployment claims granted in their names.

“That person is told to just claim that they had their identity stolen when and if law enforcement ever shows up,” Hall said.

REACTIONS FROM THE UNDERGROUND

Fraudsters involved in filing jobless benefit claims have definitely taken notice of ID.me’s efforts. Shortly after the company began working with California in December 2020, ID.me came under a series of denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks aimed at knocking the service offline.

“We have blocked at least five sustained, large-scale DDoS attacks originating from Nigeria trying to take our service down because we are blocking their fraud,” Hall said.

In May 2020, KrebsOnSecurity examined postings to several Telegram chat channels dedicated to selling services that help people fraudulently apply for jobless benefits. These days, some of the most frequent posts on those channels advertise the sale of various “methods” or tips about how to bypass ID.me protections.

Mentions of id.me in cybercrime forums, Telegram channels throughout 2020. Source: Flashpoint-intel.com

Asked about the efficacy of those methods, Hall said while his service can’t stop all phony jobless claims, it can ensure that a single scammer can only file one fraudulent application.

“I’d say in this space it’s not about being perfect, but about being better,” he said.

That’s something of an understatement in an era when being able to limit each scammer to a single fraudulent claim can be considered progress. But Hall says one of the reasons we’re in this mess is that the states have for too long relied on data broker firms that sell authentication services based on static data that is far too easy for fraudsters to steal, buy or trick people into giving away.

“There’s been a real shift in the market from data-centric identity verification to verifying through something you have and something you are, like a phone or face or ID,” he said. “And those aren’t in the provenance of the incumbents, the data-centric brokers. When there have been so many data breaches that the toothpaste is basically out of the tube, you need a full orchestration platform.”

A BETTER MOUSETRAP?

Collecting and storing so much personal data on tens of millions of Americans can make one an attractive target for hackers and ID thieves. Hall says ID.me is certified against the NIST 800-63-3 digital identity guidelines, employs multiple layers of security, and fully segregates static consumer data tied to a validated identity from a token used to represent that identity.

“We take a defense-in-depth approach, with partitioned networks, and use very sophisticated encryption scheme so that when and if there is a breach, this stuff is firewalled,” he said. “You’d have to compromise the tokens at scale and not just the database. We encrypt all that stuff down to the file level with keys that rotate and expire every 24 hours. And once we’ve verified you we don’t need that data about you on an ongoing basis.”

With such a high percentage of jobless claims now being filed by identity thieves, many states have instituted new fraud filters that ended up rejecting or delaying millions of legitimate claims.

Jim Patterson, a Republican assemblyman from California, held a news conference in December charging that ID.me’s system “continually glitches and rejects legitimate forms of identification, forcing applicants to go through the manual verification process which takes months.”

ID.me says roughly eight users will pass through its automated self-serve flow for every one user who needs to use the video chat method to verify their identity.

“The majority of legitimate claimants pass our automated, self-serve identity verification process in less than five minutes,” Hall said. “For individuals who fail this process, we are the only company in the United States that offers a secure, video chat based method of identity verification to ensure that all users are able to prove their identity online.”

Hall says his company also exceeds the industry standard in terms of validating the identities of people with little or no credit history.

“If you just rely on credit bureaus or data brokers for this, it means anyone who doesn’t have a credit history doesn’t get through,” he said. “And that tends to have a disproportionate affect on those more likely to be less affluent, such as minority communities.”

Source: KREBS ON SECURITY

Checkout Skimmers Powered by Chip Cards

Easily the most sophisticated skimming devices made for hacking terminals at retail self-checkout lanes are a new breed of PIN pad overlay combined with a flexible, paper-thin device that fits inside the terminal’s chip reader slot. What enables these skimmers to be so slim? They draw their power from the low-voltage current that gets triggered when a chip-based card is inserted. As a result, they do not require external batteries, and can remain in operation indefinitely.

A point-of-sale skimming device that consists of a PIN pad overlay (top) and a smart card skimmer (a.k.a. “shimmer”). The entire device folds onto itself, with the bottom end of the flexible card shimmer fed into the mouth of the chip card acceptance slot.

The overlay skimming device pictured above consists of two main components. The one on top is a regular PIN pad overlay designed to record keypresses when a customer enters their debit card PIN. The overlay includes a microcontroller and a small data storage unit (bottom left).

The second component, which is wired to the overlay skimmer, is a flexible card skimmer (often called a “shimmer”) that gets fed into the mouth of the chip card acceptance slot. You’ll notice neither device contains a battery, because there simply isn’t enough space to accommodate one.

Virtually all payment card terminals at self-checkout lanes now accept (if not also require) cards with a chip to be inserted into the machine. When a chip card is inserted, the terminal reads the data stored on the smart card by sending an electric current through the chip.

Incredibly, this skimming apparatus is able to siphon a small amount of that power (a few milliamps) to record any data transmitted by the payment terminal transaction and PIN pad presses. When the terminal is no longer in use, the skimming device remains dormant.

The skimmer pictured above does not stick out of the payment terminal at all when it’s been seated properly inside the machine. Here’s what the fake PIN pad overlay and card skimmer looks like when fully inserted into the card acceptance slot and viewed head-on:

The insert skimmer fully ensconced inside the compromised payment terminal. Image: KrebsOnSecurity.com

Would you detect an overlay skimmer like this? Here’s what it looks like when attached to a customer-facing payment terminal:

The PIN pad overlay and skimmer, fully seated on a payment terminal.

REALLY SMART CARDS

The fraud investigators I spoke with about this device (who did so on condition of anonymity) said initially they couldn’t figure out how the thieves who plant these devices go about retrieving the stolen data from the skimmer. Normally, overlay skimmers relay this data wirelessly using a built-in Bluetooth circuit board. But that also requires the device to have a substantial internal power supply, such as a somewhat bulky cell phone battery.

The investigators surmised that the crooks would retrieve the stolen data by periodically revisiting the compromised terminals with a specialized smart card that — when inserted — instructs the skimmer to dump all of the saved information onto the card. And indeed, this is exactly what investigators ultimately found was the case.

“Originally it was just speculation,” the source told KrebsOnSecurity. “But a [compromised] merchant found a couple of ‘white’ smartcards with no markings on them [that] were left at one of their stores. They informed us that they had a lab validate that this is how it worked.”

Some readers might reasonably be asking why it would be the case that the card acceptance slot on any chip-based payment terminal would be tall enough to accommodate both a chip card and a flexible skimming device such as this.

The answer, as with many aspects of security systems that decrease in effectiveness over time, has to do with allowances made for purposes of backward compatibility. Most modern chip-based cards are significantly thinner than the average payment card was just a few years ago, but the design specifications for these terminals state that they must be able to allow the use of older, taller cards — such as those that still include embossing (raised numbers and letters). Embossing is a practically stone-age throwback to the way credit cards were originally read, through the use of manual “knuckle-buster” card imprint machines and carbon-copy paper.

“The bad guys are taking advantage of that, because most smart cards are way thinner than the specs for these machines require,” the source explained. “In fact, these slots are so tall that you could fit two cards in there.”

IT’S ALL BACKWARDS

Backward compatibility is a major theme in enabling many types of card skimming, including devices made to compromise automated teller machines (ATMs). Virtually all chip-based cards (at least those issued in the United States) still have much of the same data that’s stored in the chip encoded on a magnetic stripe on the back of the card. This dual functionality also allows cardholders to swipe the stripe if for some reason the card’s chip or a merchant’s smartcard-enabled terminal has malfunctioned.

Chip-based credit and debit cards are designed to make it infeasible for skimming devices or malware to clone your card when you pay for something by dipping the chip instead of swiping the stripe. But thieves are adept at exploiting weaknesses in how certain financial institutions have implemented the technology to sidestep key chip card security features and effectively create usable, counterfeit cards.

Many people believe that skimmers are mainly a problem in the United States, where some ATMs still do not require more secure chip-based cards that are far more expensive and difficult for thieves to clone. However, it’s precisely because some U.S. ATMs lack this security requirement that skimming remains so prevalent in other parts of the world.

Mainly for reasons of backward compatibility to accommodate American tourists, a great number of ATMs outside the U.S. allow non-chip-based cards to be inserted into the cash machine. What’s more, many chip-based cards issued by American and European banks alike still have cardholder data encoded on a magnetic stripe in addition to the chip.

When thieves skim non-U.S. ATMs, they generally sell the stolen card and PIN data to fraudsters in Asia and North America. Those fraudsters in turn will encode the card data onto counterfeit cards and withdraw cash at older ATMs here in the United States and elsewhere.

Interestingly, even after most U.S. banks put in place fully chip-capable ATMs, the magnetic stripe will still be needed because it’s an integral part of the way ATMs work: Most ATMs in use today require a magnetic stripe for the card to be accepted into the machine. The main reason for this is to ensure that customers are putting the card into the slot correctly, as embossed letters and numbers running across odd spots in the card reader can take their toll on the machines over time.

And there are the tens of thousands of fuel pumps here in the United States that still allow chip-based card accounts to be swiped. The fuel pump industry has for years won delay after delay in implementing more secure payment requirements for cards (primarily by flexing their ability to favor their own fuel-branded cards, which largely bypass the major credit card networks).

Unsurprisingly, the past two decades have seen the emergence of organized gas theft gangs that take full advantage of the single weakest area of card security in the United States. These thieves use cloned cards to steal hundreds of gallons of gas at multiple filling stations. The gas is pumped into hollowed-out trucks and vans, which ferry the fuel to a giant tanker truck. The criminals then sell and deliver the gas at cut rate prices to shady and complicit fuel station owners and truck stops.

A great many people use debit cards for everyday purchases, but I’ve never been interested in assuming the added risk and pay for everything with cash or a credit card. Armed with your PIN and debit card data, thieves can clone the card and pull money out of your account at an ATM. Having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).

The next skimmer post here will examine an inexpensive and ingenious analog device that helps retail workers quickly check whether their payment terminals have been tampered with by bad guys.

Source: KREBS ON SECURITY