Unfortunate journo Mat Honan has said the demolition of his digital life by a hacker started with a call to Amazon customer support.
Just minutes after the call ended, the WiReD writer's Apple iCloud account was compromised and his iPhone, iPad and MacBook remotely erased. The writer's Google Mail and Twitter accounts were also hacked.
Although Honan blames himself for not having two-factor authentication enabled on his Gmail login, he also said that Amazon made it "remarkably easy" for the miscreant to gain control of his Apple iCloud account. He added that Apple had its own "security flaws" after allowing the hijacker to bypass Honan's preset security questions on his iCloud account.
"Apple tech support gave the hackers access to my iCloud account. Amazon tech support gave them the ability to see a piece of information - a partial credit card number - that Apple used to release information," he wrote in a postmortem examination of the digital attack.
"In short, the very four digits that Amazon considers unimportant enough to display in the clear on the web are precisely the same ones that Apple considers secure enough to perform identity verification."
Honan claims that he later chatted to his hacker via Twitter, email and AIM, and after Honan agreed not to press charges, the hijacker revealed how he broke into the Twitter, Google and Apple accounts.
The hacker, who called himself Phobia, said he didn't have to use brute force to figure out Honan's passwords for the accounts, but instead used clever social engineering to work his way from call centre to call centre.
Phobia said that the whole intrusion was designed to take control of Honan's Twitter feed because it had a three-character handle: @mat.
He followed the Twitter account's profile page to Honan's website, where he learned of his Gmail address. Phobia then started a password reset process for the Gmail account and thereby bagged another of Honan's email addresses: the Gmail account was setup to send a password reset message to the scribe's @me.com inbox. Although that address was partly obscured by Google (m••••firstname.lastname@example.org), Phobia guessed what it was because it had the same starting character as Honan's Gmail username.
Now that Phobia knew Honan had an AppleID account (associated with the @me inbox), he knew he could take over his iDevices.
Amazon pulled into epic hack attack
Phobia phoned Amazon masquerading as Honan and used his email address and billing address (found in Honan's Whois records for his website) to add a fake credit card to his Amazon account. The hacker hung up and then phoned Amazon again, claiming he'd been locked out of his account and used the fake credit card number, plus real email and address, to persuade Amazon tech support to let him into the account.
Once in Honan's Amazon account, Phobia could read the last four digits of the writer's real credit card in the payment settings page. Unfortunately, those four numbers, along with the addresses, were all Apple tech support needed in a subsequent phone call to allow Phobia to reset Honan's iCloud backup storage login, giving him access to pretty much every account and device Honan owned.
Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, told The Reg that Amazon's verification process for adding the credit card wasn't thorough enough. "A billing address and email address are probably too easy to dig out," he said.
But, as Honan himself admitted, it's normal practice for retailers to star out all but the last four digits of credit or debit cards, so Amazon had no reason not to do the same for an online account.
"Amazon made it too easy for someone to add a credit card to an account (and subsequently gain access to the account), but Apple made it too easy to access account information using the final four digits," Cluley said.
"There's any number of questions Apple could have asked - either extra support questions or they could have asked about recent purchases on iTunes or the App Store."
Apple said that its "internal policies were not followed completely" and it was reviewing its processes for password resets. Amazon had not returned a request for comment at the time of publication. ®