Berkshire Eagle Staff
BOSTON -- State Attorney General Martha Coakley has joined her counterparts around the country in opening an investigation into the activities of data broker U.S. Info Search and the credit reporting company, Experian.
The investigation follows reports that criminals were able to gain access to a commercial database that contained the personal information, including social security numbers, of more than 200 million American citizens.
"Allegations that companies have allowed criminals to purchase personal information of consumers are extremely troubling," Coakley said. "We are especially concerned about allegations that the companies may have known of this incident for over a year, while not reporting it so consumer could protect themselves. We will actively investigate this matter and in the meantime, we remind consumers to take proactive steps to protect their personal information."
On March 3, Hieu Ngo, a Vietnamese national, pleaded guilty to federal charges in New Hampshire federal court involving his operation of a website that offered his clients access to sensitive personal information for more than 200 million U.S. citizens, including social security numbers, which could be used to commit identity theft or financial fraud.
According to a federal prosecutor, Ngo gained access to the personal information when he obtained an account with a U.S. company known as Court Ventures by posing as a private investigator from Singapore. Due to a reciprocal data sharing agreement between Court Ventures and U.S. Info Search, LLC of Columbus, Ohio, Ngo’s account allowed him access to a database that allegedly contained names, addresses, dates of births, and social security numbers of more than 200 million U.S. citizens.
Furthermore, according to the federal prosecutor, Ngo may have resold access to his Court Ventures account through his website to over 1,300 people. For at least an 18-month period, more than 3.1 million queries were made to the database using Ngo’s account. According to Experian, it purchased Court Ventures’ assets in March 2012, and continued to honor Ngo as a customer until December 2012.
The extent of the breach is not currently known and Experian has represented that its credit card databases were not impacted or accessed in this incident.
The state Attorney General’s office has been in contact with both Experian and U.S. Info Search to review the circumstances of the breach and intends to determine whether both companies had proper safeguards in place to protect consumers’ personal information from unauthorized use or disclosure, and to ensure that the companies take all steps necessary to protect consumers from this breach.