Manipulation of web site was via “third-party” says Atlanta-based Equifax


In what at first looked like yet another incident of hacking, Equifax has taken down a web page because of suspicion that it had been manipulated.

The site, one of the embattled company’s customer service offerings, was delivering fraudulent updates for Adobe Flash, which – when clicked – would infect a visitor’s computer with unwanted software, according to a security analyst and the technology web site Ars Technica.

Thursday morning, Equifax officials confirmed that they had taken down the web page and said they were investigating. But late in the day, the company issued a statement asserting that no breach had occurred – although it did not deny that there had been unauthorized activity.

“Despite early media reports, Equifax can confirm that its systems were not compromised and that the reported issue did not affect our consumer online dispute portal,” the company said.

Instead, it involved connections using the Equifax site, Equifax said.

“The issue involves a third-party vendor that Equifax uses to collect website performance data, and that vendor’s code running on an Equifax website was serving malicious content,” said the company statement. 

The company has removed the vendor’s code and the webpage remains offline “to conduct further analysis.”

Hours before the Equifax statement, Ars Technica had reported that independent assessments from researchers that indicated the problem had been coming from “a third-party ad network or analytics provider.”

That did indeed mean that the problem might not actually be on the Equifax website, Ars Technica wrote. “But even if that’s true, the net result is that the Equifax site was arguably compromised in some way, since administrators couldn’t control the pages visitors saw when trying to use key functions.”

More ominously, the site had required some visitors to enter their Social Security numbers.

The Equifax statement did not specifically address that point.

But Equifax is in the public eye, which puts it in the crosshairs for hackers, too, said Paige Schaffer, president of the identity and digital protection unit at Generali Global Assistance. “The amount of public scrutiny that Equifax has recently experienced has likely made them more of a target for hackers trying to take advantage of any vulnerabilities that may still exist.”

The Atlanta-based company first announced a breach on Sept. 7 that it eventually said involved information about 145 million people.

On Tuesday, a report citing unnamed officials said that driver’s license data for 10.9 million Americans had been included in that breach.

After several years of breaches – although none so deep in data as that at Equifax – consumers should assume that much of their personal information is “out there,” said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com.

Yet about 20 percent of adults have never checked their credit, according to the company’s research, he said. “This new announcement from Equifax is just Reason No. 10,000 why consumers should assume their personal information is already out there and act accordingly. It’s a scary thing to wrap your brain around, but the truth is that you’re better off assuming the worst and taking steps to protect yourself.”

Also Thursday, Hyatt Hotels said payment card information had been hacked at a number of locations in spring and early summer. 

Hyatt said 41 properties were affected in 11 countries, including seven in the United States: three in Hawaii, three in Puerto Rico and one in Guam. 

News about the massive Equifax breach made the once-obscure company a household name – and not in a good way.

Two executives sold stock after the breach was discovered – but before it was announced. Not good optics. Richard Smith, the company’s chief executive, abruptly retired. He who was called before Congress anyway to face bipartisan censure.

One of the more strident critics, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), on Thursday sent a letter and a list of 79 questions to Smith.

Among her requests, were attempts to get more details about the extent of the breach and the company’s response, the failure to protect consumer data, the company’s security strategy and questions about ignoring previous warnings.

“At your hearing, you stated that the hack was the result of both human and technological errors,” wrote Warren, who made her name at Harvard as a critic of the financial system. “You failed to describe in detail how these errors occurred or what safeguards, if any, Equifax had in place to prevent or mitigate such errors.”

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