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Source: Globe and Mail

Posted on March 16, 2004

      Criminals have gained access to the detailed, personal credit files of about 1,400 people, in a security breach that raises fears of a major identity theft.

      The security breach was confirmed Monday by Equifax Canada Inc., a major national consumer-credit reporting agency.

      By gaining access to the files, criminals have obtained social-insurance numbers, bank- account numbers, credit histories, home addresses, job descriptions, the names of spouses -- enough information to take over bank accounts, open new accounts in the names of those whose identities have been stolen, or impersonate individuals to obtain loans or credit cards.

      With that kind of information, a criminal could steal someone's identity, set up false accounts, obtain loans and credit cards as well as get passports and other documents, said RCMP Sergeant John Ward. "It's frightening what they can do. It's a huge issue," he said. "Once you steal somebody's identity, you can set up all kinds of things."

      Police could not say Monday if the thieves have done anything with the information yet.

      "We have learned of a situation in which the Equifax credit reports of about 1,400 consumers -- primarily in British Columbia and Alberta -- were accessed by criminals posing as legitimate credit grantors," Equifax said in a statement.

      "We have contained this unauthorized access and we are now co-operating fully in an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

      A company official confirmed that the files of people in other provinces -- including Ontario -- were also breached, but most are in the West.

      Equifax discovered the breach in late February, and began notifying the people whose files were accessed, but did not make a public statement. The company confirmed the breach Monday when contacted by The Globe and Mail.

      Joel Heft, vice-president of Equifax, said he was not aware of anything like this happening before in his industry.

      Unauthorized access to even one file is considered a serious security breach, he said, and something on this scale has simply never been experienced before by his company, one of two national credit-reporting agencies in Canada. (The other national company, Trans Union of Canada, did not return calls Monday.)

      Mr. Heft said security breaches at Equifax are "extremely, extremely rare" and although he couldn't speak for other credit-reporting agencies, he wasn't aware of any competitors being subject to such a massive attack.

      Mr. Heft said he couldn't discuss the case in detail because it is under investigation by Equifax and the RCMP. He said he did not know if organized crime was behind it. But he agreed it would take a sophisticated operation to breach the company's security measures.

      He said the company routinely contracts security experts to try and crack the system, and until the recent breach was discovered, Equifax thought it had a foolproof method of protecting data.

      The company has sent letters to individuals whose credit reports were accessed. The highly confidential files, known as credit reports, that Equifax maintains are supposed to be accessible only to the individual consumers themselves, and to legitimate "credit grantors," like banks, are used for background checks before lending money.

      Credit grantors provide Equifax and companies like it with information about their customers. The companies assemble a personal file on each individual for whom they have information. Anybody who uses credit will have a personal credit file.

      The credit reports typically contain six years' worth of detailed information on an individual's credit history and banking information. It lists bank-account numbers, credit limits, names the banks or other institutions with which an individual has accounts, lists current and previous home addresses, birth dates, employment information and gives the name and place of employment for an individual's spouse.The Department of the Solicitor-General reports that identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in North America.

      In 2002, nearly 8,000 people filed identity-theft complaints in Canada, reporting losses of more than $5.3-million.

      The government lists theft of payment cards, skimming of customer credit cards at restaurants or cash stations, "shoulder surfing" by spying over someone's shoulder or installing fake ATM devices as popular methods for identity theft.

      But striking at big databases has become increasingly attractive to criminals.

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