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In March 2010, 28 year-old Albert Gonzalez was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for breaching security measures at several well-known retailers and stealing millions of credit card numbers, which he then resold across a variety of shadow “carding” Web sites. Using a fairly simple packet sniffer, Gonzalez was able to steal payment card transaction data in real time, which he then parked on blind servers in places such as Latvia and Ukraine—countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. Gonzalez named his activities “Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin'” and lived a lavish lifestyle by selling stolen credit card information. He was eventually tracked down by the U.S. Secret Service, which was investigating the stolen card ring. Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin' took place for more than two years and cost major retailers, such as TJX, OfficeMax, Barnes & Noble, Heartland, and Hannaford, more than $200 million in losses and recovery costs. It is the largest computer crime case ever prosecuted.

At first glance, Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin' seems to be an open-and-shut case. A hacker commits a series of cybercrimes, is caught, and is successfully prosecuted. Fault and blame are assigned to the cybercriminal, and justice is served for the corporations and the millions of people whose credit card information was compromised.

Unless you ask the shareholders, banking partners, and some customers of TJX, who filed a series of class-action lawsuits against the company claiming that the “high-level deficiencies” in its security practices make it at least partially responsible for the damages caused by Albert Gonzalez and his accomplices. The lawsuits point out, for example, that the packet sniffer Gonzalez attached to the TJX network went unnoticed for more than seven months. Court documents also indicate that TJX failed to notice more than 80 GB of stored data being transferred from its servers using TJX’s own high-speed network. Finally, an audit performed by TJX’s payment-card processing partners found that it was noncompliant with 9 of the 12 requirements for secure payment card transactions. TJX’s core information security policies were found to be so ineffective that the judge presiding over sentencing hearing of Gonzalez reviewed them to determine whether TJX’s damages claim against him of $171 million is valid.

Apart from lawsuits, TJX faced a serious backlash from customers and the media when the details of the scope of the breaches trickled out. Customers reacted angrily when they learned that nearly six weeks had passed between the discovery of the breach and its notification to the public. News organizations ran headline stories that painted a picture of TJX as a clueless and uncaring company. Consumer organizations openly warned people not to shop at TJX stores. TJX’s reputation and brand image was shattered in the wake of Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin', and only a small portion of the damage was actually Albert Gonzalez’s fault.

The real lesson of Operation Get Rich or Die Tryin' may not be the crime itself, but how a lackluster security policy was chiefly responsible for it happening in the first place.

SIDE NOTE: I have worked closely with several of the intrusion analysts and forensic examiners that were involved in this case and was completing my masters while this investigation was still active back in 2008 timeframe. Details surrounding the intrusion, lengthy investigation, and prosecution of Albert Gonzalez still fascinate me and we can still see the same mistakes being made today that lead to costly damages and lost revenue for organizations. The unfortunate truth is that most organizations today still struggle to budget their information security efforts properly in order to mitigate risk and secure their valuable assets. In the early reports, TJX revealed that 45.6 million credit and debit card numbers were stolen from one of its systems over a period of more than 18 months starting as early as 2005 (and possibly earlier). This was later revised to nearly 100 million credit card numbers and other personal information.

TJX Press Release

Global Trail of an Online Crime Ring


Published: August 11, 2008

Cost of data breach at TJX soars to $256m

Suits, computer fix add to expenses

By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff  |  August 15, 2007

VIDEO: Stolen: 130 Million Credit Card and Debit Card Numbers in the Biggest Data Breach in US History

Posted in 2009: Kevin Mitnik explains the how the breach and money laundering is possible


The case scenario research is done and provided to aid in your efforts.  After reviewing the gathered articles and video, along with your own research on the TJX data breach, please answer the following question:

If you were CEO of TJX in 2005, provide one security measure that would have helped to mitigate or avoid the risk associated with this data breach. Include your thoughts on the overall handling of the incident before, during and after and what you would have done differently to help protect consumer/customer information and minimize the damage to the company’s reputation. Write a policy statement that addresses this specific security measure for the organization. State why it is needed, its purpose, scope (who/what does it apply to) and details of the new policy.

Sample policy:

Directions: No minimum, but maximum of three (3) pages, double-spaced, standard margins, 10pt. text with no more than two (2) lines for name, date and course assignment detail.  Your original thought is encouraged and you must cite all sources on a third page (if needed). Be as concise as possible and avoid “fluff” and “filler” material. One quote can be used but only if needed to make point.

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