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Equifax Operates A Secondary Credit Reporting Agency, And Its Website Appears Haphazard

Equifax logo More news about Equifax, the credit reporting agency with multiple data security failures resulting in a massive data breach affecting half of the United States population. It appears that Equifax also operates a secondary credit bureau: the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE). The Krebs On Security blog explained Equifax's role:

"The NCTUE is a consumer reporting agency founded by AT&T in 1997 that maintains data such as payment and account history, reported by telecommunication, pay TV and utility service providers that are members of NCTUE... there are four "exchanges" that feed into the NCTUE’s system: the NCTUE itself, something called "Centralized Credit Check Systems," the New York Data Exchange (NYDE), and the California Utility Exchange. According to a partner solutions page at Verizon, the NYDE is a not-for-profit entity created in 1996 that provides participating exchange carriers with access to local telecommunications service arrears (accounts that are unpaid) and final account information on residential end user accounts. The NYDE is operated by Equifax Credit Information Services Inc. (yes, that Equifax)... The California Utility Exchange collects customer payment data from dozens of local utilities in the state, and also is operated by Equifax (Equifax Information Services LLC)."

This surfaced after consumers with security freezes on their credit reports at the three major credit reporting agencies (e.g., Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) found fraudulent mobile phone accounts opened in their names. This shouldn't have been possible since security freezes prevent credit reporting agencies from selling consumers' credit reports to telecommunications companies, who typically perform credit checks before opening new accounts. So, the credit information must have come from somewhere else. It turns out, the source was the NCTUE.

NCTUE logo Credit reporting agencies make money by selling consumers' credit reports to potential lenders. And credit reports from the NCTUE are easy for anyone to order:

"... the NCTUE makes it fairly easy to obtain any records they may have on Americans. Simply phone them up (1-866-349-5185) and provide your Social Security number and the numeric portion of your registered street address."

The Krebs on Security blog also explain the expired SSL certificate used by Equifax which prevents serving web pages in a secure manner. That was simply inexcusable, poor data security.

A quick check of the NCTUE page on the Better Business Bureau site found 2 negative reviews and 70 complaints -- mostly about negative credit inquiries, and unresolved issues. A quick check of the NCTUE Terms Of Use page found very thin usage and privacy policies lacking details, such as mentions about data sharing, cookies, tracking, and more. The lack of data-sharing mentions could indicate NCTUE will share or sell data to anyone: entities, companies, and government agencies. It also means there is no way to verify whether the NCTUE complies with its own policies. Not good.

The policy contains enough language which indicates that it is not liable for anything:

"... THE NCTUE IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR, AND EXPRESSLY DISCLAIM, ALL LIABILITY FOR, DAMAGES OF ANY KIND ARISING OUT OF USE, REFERENCE TO, OR RELIANCE ON ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED WITHIN THE SITE. All content located at or available from the NCTUE website is provided “as is,” and NCTUE makes no representations or warranties, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title or non-infringement of proprietary rights. Without limiting the foregoing, NCTUE makes no representation or warranty that content located on the NCTUE website is free from error or suitable for any purpose; nor that the use of such content will not infringe any third party copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights.

Links to Third Party Websites: Although the NCTUE website may include links providing direct access to other Internet resources, including websites, NCTUE is not responsible for the accuracy or content of information contained in these sites.."

Huh?! As is? The data NCTUE collected is being used for credit decisions. Reliability and accuracy matters. And, there are more concerns.

While at the NCTUE site, I briefly browsed the credit freeze information, which is hosted on an outsourced site, the Exchange Service Center (ESC). What's up with that? Why a separate site, and not a cohesive single site with a unified customer experience? This design gives the impression that the security freeze process was an afterthought.

Plus, the NCTUE and ESC sites present different policies (e.g., terms of use, privacy). Really? Why the complexity? Which policies rule? You'd think that the policies in both sites would be consistent and would mention each other, since consumers must use the two sites complete security freezes. That design seems haphazard. Not good.

There's more. Rather than use state-of-the-art, traditional web pages, the ESC site presents its policies in static Adobe PDF documents making it difficult for users to follow links for more information. (Contrast those thin policies with the more comprehensive Privacy and Terms of Use policies by TransUnion.) Plus, one policy was old -- dated 2011. It seems the site hasn't been updated in seven years. What fresh hell is this? More haphazard design. Why the confusing user experience? Not good.

Image of confusing drop-down menu for exchanges within the security freeze process. Click to view larger version There's more. When placing a security freeze, the ESC site includes a drop-down menu asking consumers to pick an exchange (e.g., NCTUE, Centralized Credit Check System, California Utility Exchange, NYDE). The confusing drop-down menu appears in the image on the right. Which menu option is the global security freeze? Is there a global option? The form page doesn't say, and it should. Why would a consumer select one of the exchanges? Perhaps, is this another slick attempt to limit the effectiveness of security freezes placed by consumers. Not good.

What can consumers make of this? First, the NCTUE site seems to be a slick way for Equifax to skirt the security freezes which consumers have placed upon their credit reports. Sounds like a definite end-run to me. Surprised? I'll bet. Angry? I'll bet, too. We consumers paid good money for security freezes on our credit reports.

Second, the combo NCTUE/ESC site seems like some legal, outsourcing ju-jitsu to avoid all liability, while still enjoying the revenues from credit-report sales. The site left me with the impression that its design, which hasn't kept pace during the years with internet best practices, was by a committee of attorneys focused upon serving their corporate clients' data collection and sharing needs while doing the absolute minimum required legally -- rather than a site focused upon the security needs of consumers. I can best describe the site using an old film-review phrase: a million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard pressed in a million years to create something this bad.

Third, credit reporting agencies get their data from a variety of sources. So, their business model is based upon data sharing. NCTUE seems designed to effectively do just that, regardless of consumers' security needs and wishes.

Fourth, this situation offers several reminders: a) just about anyone can set up and operate a credit reporting agency. No special skills nor expertise required; b) there are both national and regional credit reporting agencies; c) credit reports often contain errors; and d) credit reporting agencies historically have outsourced work, sometimes internationally -- for better or worse data security.

Fifth, you now you know what criminals and fraudsters already know... how to skirt the security freezes on credit reports and gain access to consumers' sensitive information. The combo NCTUE/ESC site is definitely a high-value target by criminals.

My first impression of the NCTUE site: haphazard design making it difficult for consumers to use and to trust it. What do you think?

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