Microsoft owns up to Xbox Live pretexting

Months after Xbox Live users began complaining of hacked accounts, Microsoft Corp. yesterday acknowledged that the service's support staff is at fault, victims of "pretexting" calls by identity thieves.

Reports of account theft on Xbox Live have been making the rounds of its member forums since at least December. But Microsoft responded only after noted security researcher -- Kevin Finisterre of "Month of Apple Bugs" fame -- last week went public about how his account was hijacked.

As recently as Friday, the company was saying only that it had "found no evidence" of a data breach and that any thefts had occurred could be blamed on users giving out personal information.

That assertion changed yesterday. "A security researcher, Kevin Finisterre, discovered not a hack, but the fact that some accounts may have been compromised as a result of 'social engineering,' also known as 'pretexting,' through our support center," said Larry Hryb, director of programming at Xbox Live, in a blog entry. "Once I realized what he was talking about -- he sent me some painful-to-listen-to audio files -- I confirmed that the team is fully aware of this issue. They are examining the policies and have already begun retraining the support staff and partners to help make sure we reduce this type of social engineering attack.

"There's no other way to say it; this situation shouldn't have happened. Our customers deserve better," Hryb added.

The audio file Hryb referred to was provided to Computerworld by Finisterre last Wednesday, and was one of two user accounts described in an earlier story about Xbox Live support representatives and pretexting.

Although most users who posted comments to Hryb's blog entry were appreciative of the mea culpa, some were pessimistic about the chances that support would actually improve. "No surprise here. We've been telling you from Day One that Xbox/Xbox Live support is a joke," wrote someone identified as TH3Hammer. "You're right ... we DO deserve better, but I guarantee that it won't get better."

"I have ZERO faith in ms xbox support. No one I know does either," wrote jmel, another user. "Retrained? Thanks major, but its [sic] gonna take MUCH more, and it shouldn't take this kinda crap to wake up the decision makers at ms."

Many more users, worried about not only account theft but also the ease with which fraudsters were able to get support representatives to spill personal information, urged Microsoft to untangle credit card accounts from Xbox Live. "It would help if we could remove our credit card information after we've used it instead of it being stored on the system (or even the console) forever just waiting to be pretexted," wrote Joergen8.

"I think it's time to give your customers the ability to remove their credit card numbers from the service completely," said Scott, another user. "When it comes to security, there is only completely secure and unsecure. Gray area or room for leeway is nonexistent. Whether or not you believe it to be a possibility right now that this information could be compromised, the trust has been broken, and Microsoft needs to respect their customers' rights in that regard."

Finisterre, who lost access to his Xbox Live account a day after calling out members of another Halo clan for cheating, still has not had that account restored. Instead, Microsoft has issued him another account, he said in an e-mail. "[The matter] has been officially escalated to Microsoft Legal," he said, "although I have no way of getting in contact with them. I did tear through their voice mail yesterday trying to get someone, but didn't have much luck with the call back."

Finisterre has been keeping a running account of sorts on his DigitalMunition site.

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