Update: 'Hacker safe' Web site gets hit by hacker

January 7, 2008

By Jaikumar Vijayan


Just because a Web site has a certification claiming that it is virtually hackproof, that doesn't necessarily mean it's immune to all intrusions.

A case in point is Geeks.com, which on Friday began notifying an unspecified number of customers that their personal and financial data may have been compromised by an intrusion into the systems that run the online technology retailer's Web site. Geeks.com, whose formal business name is Genica Corp., said in a letter to customers that it discovered the security breach on Dec. 5.

The compromised information included the names, addresses, telephone numbers and Visa credit card numbers of an unspecified number of customers who had shopped at Geeks.com, according to a copy of the letter that was posted on The Consumerist blog.

Geeks.com is a $150 million company specializing in the sale of computer-related excess inventory and manufacturers' closeouts. Its Web site prominently proclaims that it is tested on a daily basis by ScanAlert Inc., a vendor in Santa Clara, Calif., that agreed in October to be acquired by McAfee Inc. (download PDF).

ScanAlert says its vulnerability scanning service is designed to constantly monitor Web sites for vulnerabilities that could compromise customer data. The service is used by more than 250,000 Web sites, of which about 80,000 -- including Geeks.com -- display ScanAlert's "Hacker Safe" seal. ScanAlert describes the seal as a "trustmark" that is designed to help reassure consumers about a site's security precautions.

However, Nigel Ravenhill, a ScanAlert spokesman, said today via e-mail that the vendor had withdrawn the Hacker Safe certification from Geeks.com "several times" last year due to the existence of vulnerabilities in the retailer's systems. Geeks.com fell out of compliance with ScanAlert's security requirements last June and then again in December, according to Ravenhill.

During these periods, the Hacker Safe seal was not allowed to appear on their Web site," Ravenhill wrote in the e-mail. "Preliminary evidence uncovered while investigating this matter suggests that the breach most likely occurred during one of these periods."

He added that each time ScanAlert withdrew its certification, "Geeks.com's IT staff worked diligently to fix the problem. As of today, Geeks.com is meeting the Hacker Safe security standard."

ScanAlert conducts daily security audits to certify that its clients comply with the requirements of the Hacker Safe seal, Ravenhill noted. "As long as the standard is met on a daily basis, ScanAlert will continue to allow a date-stamped image to appear on the client's Web site," he wrote.

A telephone operator at Geeks.com's headquarters in Oceanside, Calif., said that she was unable to find anyone at the retailer who could comment about the incident. She instead provided a toll-free telephone number -- (888) 529-6261 -- that Geeks.com has set up to assist customers with questions and concerns related to the incident.

In addition to that number, last week's notification included a number for non-U.S. residents to call, suggesting that the breach may have affected customers in other countries as well.

The letter indicated that both numbers would be operational beginning tomorrow. However, an operator answered the toll-free number this morning and said that a company representative would be in touch shortly with more information about the incident.

According to the letter, which was signed by Jerry Harken, chief of security at Geeks.com, the intrusion has been reported to local law enforcement authorities as well as to the U.S. Secret Service. The incident has also been reported to Visa, Harken said, without providing any indication of why only Visa card numbers appear to have been compromised.

In addition, Geeks.com has brought in outside help to investigate the intrusion. "We have engaged an outside, nationally recognized security firm to determine how this incident occurred and to confirm that information we obtain is protected to the fullest extent reasonably possible," Harken wrote.

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