"Organised crime groups have been tapping into e-commerce sites for a while now. The FBI has put out warnings, but e-commerce sites haven't heeded the advisories," says Debbie Weierman, spokesperson for the National Infrastructure Protection Center, the branch of the FBI that deals with Internet crimes.
Fourteen FBI field offices are working full-time with five Secret Service offices on the most recent reports, tracking a hacking group they say may be from Russia and the Ukraine, Weierman says. But because investigations are continuing, the FBI won't release the names of the victimised companies, which include electronic-commerce and banking sites in 20 states.
The FBI has issued an advisory updating its December 1 "E-Commerce Vulnerabilities" notice that detailed known weaknesses of the Windows NT systems, the type most often targeted by hackers. Since the December advisory, several dozen hacking incidents have come to light, Weierman says. And it's mainly the negligence of e-commerce sites that allows the crime to happen.
"We want to put out the message because we have remedies to stop this," she says. "Every one of these attacks occurred through known vulnerabilities. The patches for these vulnerabilities are out there.... The story here is not who was hacked, but that the problem is still out there because people aren't doing what they should be doing."
Still, even Microsoft -- which markets the software often targeted for attack -- has fallen prey to hackers in the past.
This rash of electronic break-ins constitutes "the largest criminal Internet attack to date," according to the SANS Institute. The security consultancy says the Center for Internet Security is preparing a tool that can check systems for the security holes and will look for files the FBI has found on many compromised systems.
Patches available but unused
Security experts say that free, easy patches for system vulnerabilities are indeed just a click away. Microsoft publishes online security bulletins announcing system defects and ways to fix them, and third-party industry organisations such as the SANS Institute and the Center for Internet Security put out security advisories.
"With all the patches out there, it's absolutely absurd that these companies allow this to happen," says Steve Gibson, a self-proclaimed "hacker expert" who runs a security and privacy research company called Gibson Research. He markets a number of security tools and services.
"The problem is that it's now possible to completely establish an e-commerce facility without having any expertise in computers," he says. Gibson says that in the rush to get online, companies don't understand the dangers of cyberspace and aren't taking responsibility for their systems.
But for customers who fear for the safety of their bank and credit card accounts as they solicit new e-commerce sites, there isn't much they can do.
"There's really no way the average user could check that a site is secure," Gibson says. "The only thing I could suggest would be to carefully consider the companies you do business with and perhaps send an e-mail to ask if their server security policies are current."