A study in contrasts: handling stolen email lists

By | April 4, 2011

I try to make a habit of giving out “tagged” email addresses to web sites when I sign up for accounts / mailing lists / whatever. For example, when creating an account at widgets.com, instead of just signing up as “jik@kamens.us”, I might sign up as “jik+widgets@kamens.us”. It ends up in the same mailbox regardless, and it gives me some visibility into who is sharing or selling or allowing my email address to be stolen.

About six months ago, I started getting spam from an email address that I had only used in one place: signing up one of my kids for a Scholastic, Inc. book club through their web site back in 2007.

I contacted Scholastic and told them that either they were selling my email address and it needed to stop, or they had suffered a data breach of at least customer email addresses, if not more.

In response, Scholastic’s CISO informed me that Scholastic doesn’t sell email addresses to third parties; their children’s book club business was sold to Sandvik Publishing in 2008; the email address in question was no longer in Scholastic’s database; and I should contact Sandvik if I wished to pursue the matter further.

I sent a reply to the CISO which read as follows:

I don’t recall ever being asked whether I considered it OK for Scholastic to sell my PII to another company. This is especially disturbing since at that point I was no longer a customer of Scholastic’s for the business that was sold.

Granted, your privacy policy gives you the legal right to sell any information you collect to anyone you want. The fact that you are legally permitted to do that doesn’t make it right.

Your privacy policy also says, “Scholastic ensures that all personally and non-personally identifiable information that it receives via the Internet is secure against unauthorized access.” Alas, you apparently do not consider it your responsibility to ensure that the third parties to whom you sell PII keep it as secure as you claim to do yourselves. That is rather disappointing.

I will contact [Sandvik] as you have suggested. However, if I were in your shoes, I would be extremely concerned that a third party to whom Scholastic had sold PII allowed it to be compromised, and I would consider it my responsibility to investigate the issue myself, rather than leaving the wronged (former) Scholastic customer entirely on his own.

I received no further response from Scholastic.

I then contacted the president of Sandvik. He insisted that Sandvik also does not sell email addresses, and that it was simply impossible that my address could have been leaked through them, since the only place they have it is on a USB drive locked in a safe. They said it was more likely that the address was stolen by someone from my mail server or computer.

I explained in response that the the only place this address could be found on my computer was in a three-year-old, compressed email archive in a totally non-standard location in my home directory, and that I ran my own Linux mail server which I actively monitored on a daily basis, which had never shown any evidence of any sort of successful intrusion, and which in any case was hardly an attractive target for spammers to go to the trouble of harvesting email addresses from, since it serves only the people in my family.

For this, and various other reasons I pointed out, it was far more likely that the address had been stolen at some point from Sandvik. I also pointed out that the data breach laws in many of the states in which Sandvik does business would seem to require Sandvik to initiate an investigation into the breach and/or to report it to various state governments. At this point, Sandvik, too, stopped responding to my emails.

There’s really no way of knowing whether my email address was actually stolen from Scholastic or Sandvik. I don’t save mail server logs back far enough to know when I first started getting spam at that address, and even if I did, there’s no guarantee that spammers would have started using the address immediately after getting their hands on it, nor is there any guarantee that Scholastic completely destroyed the data immediately after selling the business to Sandvik. Scholastic and Sandvik both refuse to acknowledge the possibility that email addresses and possibly more PII were stolen from them, and it’s unlikely that a nobody like me would be able to convince them to take this more seriously, so I stopped trying.

I’d like to contrast the poor handling of the email address breach by Scholastic and/or Sandvik with an email message I just got from Brookstone:

++++++++++++Important E-Mail Security Alert++++++++++++

Dear Valued Brookstone Customer,

On March 31, we were informed by our e-mail service provider that your e-mail address may have been exposed by unauthorized entry into their system. Our e-mail service provider deploys e-mails on our behalf to customers in our e-mail database.

We want to assure you that the only information that may have been obtained was your first name and e-mail address. Your account and any other personally identifiable information are not stored in this system and were not at risk.

Please note, it is possible you may receive spam e-mail messages as a result. We want to urge you to be cautious when opening links or attachments from unknown third parties.

In keeping with best industry security practices, Brookstone will never ask you to provide or confirm any information, including credit card numbers, unless you are on our secure e-commerce site, Brookstone.com.

Our service provider has reported this incident to the appropriate authorities.

We regret this has taken place and for any inconvenience this may have caused you. We take your privacy very seriously, and we will continue to work diligently to protect your personal information.


Brookstone Customer Care

It turns out that the provider who leaked Brookstone’s address list was Epsilon, and they also leaked the lists of a bunch of other clients, many of them more frightening (because of the risk of spear phishing attacks) than Brookstone. See Krebs on Security for details.

It’s unfortunate that Brookstone allowed a breach of email addresses and the first names associated with them, because spammers will use the first names to help them evade people’s spam filters and execute more convincing and successful phishing attacks. Having said that, Brookstone deserves a great deal of credit for sending out this notification. Furthermore, if the timeline in the notification is true, then they sent it out two days after being notified about the breach, which is all the more impressive.

Update [4/5/2011]: I’ve now also been contacted about the Epsilon breach by 1-800-FLOWERS.COM and Walgreens. Woohoo!

Update [4/6/2010]: Add Chase to the list. It’s sort of sad that it took Chase, a bank, three days longer to notify me than Brookstone, a high-end luxury toys merchant.

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2 thoughts on “A study in contrasts: handling stolen email lists

  1. Ruth Jedlinsky

    We also use disposable email addresses and notice a lot of them were compromised recently. I don’t know how anyone without their own domain manages. We’ve received the same message from Best Buy so far and I’m expecting a few more.

  2. Andrew Greene

    I’ve gotten a lot of emails like that today, most with the same boilerplate text (probably provided by Epsilon’s lawyers).

    I’ve also had several of my disposable email addresses compromised before; based on the patterns I’ve seen I suspect compromised mailers in the middle (or packet sniffers), rather than the senders (or my own mail server) being compromised.


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