In what may be the newest low-point in data-mining and marketing, first-page story from the New York Times last Sunday details how identity thieves are turning their attention to scamming elderly persons living alone, a particularly vulnerable group. This by itself would not be unexpected from the low-lifes hiding out in the comfort of their dysfunctional countries in Africa and Eastern Europe to target US consumers. But the disturbing part is how data-mining and aggregation companies are knowing aiding and abetting the criminal enterprise:
“These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change and it’s just a matter of catching a bit of star dust.”
Comment over-heard on an IRC channel populated by carders?
No, that would be a quote from the official marketing literature for InfoUSA, which sells lists of consumers often collected by dubious schemes such as sweepstakes, where the true purpose of data collection, if disclosed at all, appears in fine-print.
The article titled “Bilking the elderly, with a corporate assist” details the story of one 92 year-old World War II veteran and Purple Heart winner who frequently received calls from telemarketers– and did not mind it, as they provided some solace for a person living alone at home. InfoUSA sold his name/contact information to scamers, who contacted him to extract more information using standard pressure tactics (“your benefits will be canceled unless you provide us your SSN/bank account # etc.”) and proceeded to wipe out his life savings.
This not an isolated incident, and the companies selling the author contends that the companies selling data are fully aware that they are being used by criminals. Quoting a Canadian police officers:
Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals. If someone advertises a list by saying it contains gullible or elderly people, it’s like putting out a sign saying ‘Thieves welcome here’
In fact internal company documents obtained by NYT show that InfoUSA executives were aware of suspicious activity but knowing continued to profit from the sale of information to criminals. The company has since then posted a response– which is nothing more than a transparent spin attempt, except for the allegation that NYT story is based on events 3 years old– but they could not be bothered to respond to the author who claims they were contacted by phone and email at least thirty times.
InfoUSA is not the only player in this disgraceful episode, published one week before Memorial Day. Wachovia Bank also profited from the criminal activity, hosting the accounts used by the scam artists, where they collected money withdrawn from victims’ accounts. (To the tune of accepting $142 million in deposits with unsigned checks.) Particularly appalling is the fact that often the victim’s bank would detect suspicious activity, protect its own customer and then contact Wachovia to urge them to shut down the accounts. In one case 59% of all checks from a company were returned, in each case Wachovia being informed of the rejection. No action was taken.
Not surprisingly Wachovia declined to comment on the story and issues a content-free statement to the effect that they are continuing to cooperate with authorities. Lesson learned: spin doctoring after a screw up is always easier than protecting customers in the first place.