Sears Security Hole Revealed Gift Card Data. Is This The Price To Pay For Being Cutting Edge?

Written by Evan Schuman
September 7th, 2009

In another embarrassing moment for Sears IT security, a programmer has posted a “how I did it” guide that he said took advantage of a huge hole in Sears’ card processing system “that allowed anyone to verify an infinite number of gift card and PIN combinations simply by ignoring the site’s prebuilt forms and writing a script to an automatic submission routine.” Sears subsequently took that part of its site down.

The key problem seemed to be that Sears was relying on client-side cookies to prevent such attacks. “They should know where the verification requests come from, log them all, and be able to disable the verifications when they have a malicious attack,” he told DarkReading. “It doesn’t appear to me that they had any server-side control over how many verifications were done.” The programmer, researcher and owner of Merge Design, offered the full specs of his attack via this PDF. (It’s on our site in case some lawyer convinces him to take it down from his site. It’s well worth reading.)

This the latest in a series of high-tech blunders from the 123-year-old $47 billion 3,900-store chain. This is including one that allowed consumers to change its pages, a process that allowed shoppers to learn the purchases of other shoppers, a spyware distribution incident as well as a program that distributed the private data of customers and a Fed crackdown on privacy problems.

One security vendor dubbed Sear’s security hole something that many retailers also share. “Unfortunately, this sort of hole is all to common in website properties. The core weakness of gift cards is that they typically only require a single activation number, which is often generated algorithmically, making it easy for the bad guys to fake,” said Michael Argast, security analyst for Sophos. “Combined with online shopping and drop boxes, this has become a favored way of the bad guys to rake in easy goods for pawning, etc.”

“The fact that Sears hadn’t put any sort of throttling mechanism in place and, more seriously, allowed backend access to their database is a more serious concern, combined with their initial slow response,” Argast said. “But at least they should feel comforted that they are in good company here – many larger online properties don’t have any sort of throttling, allow multiple password attempts without any warning to the user upon successful login, etc.”

Indeed, Argast pointed to a very similar attempt at an iTunes hack back in March.

Are these attacks directed at Sears because of its legendary brand and its huge size? Perhaps, but we’re not seeing these many successful attacks with Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Target as its victims. A more likely explanation is that this is the price Sears pays for having been on the cutting edge. In a role that might be seen as unexpected from such a venerable and veteran big box chain, Sears has quietly taken an especially large number of technology gambles.

They’re not quite at the level of Burlington Coat Factory—which in the 80s and 90s developed quite a reputation for trying things long before other billion-dollar retail chains did, including deploying Unix, Oracle, the Web, E-mail, Linux, TCP/IP and symmetrical multi-processing—but they’re getting close. Consider their moves with password-sharing with Facebook, merging call center with Web, a MyGofer prototype store, a shared gift program, some very early 2-D barcode efforts and actually using consumer GPS data in a mobile-commerce project.

Does those experiments translate to a more aggressive E-Commerce strategy, which perhaps might mean less testing or at least creative testing? A few of these holes involve efforts to let consumers manage their accounts more and to do so more easily. The more data that a chain makes easily available to its customers, the more that will also be more easily accessed by cyberthieves.


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Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

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