States Probe Massive Data Breach at Experian

In what could be one of the biggest data breaches in history, the federal government and authorities in several states are investigating the criminal sale of Social Security numbers, bank account data and other personal information for up to 200 million U.S. citizens.

The investigations stem from the case of Hieu Minh Ngo, a Vietnamese man who pleaded guilty last month in New Hampshire federal court to selling the data to more than 1,300 of his customers, according to a court transcript.

The breach is the latest demonstration of the growing vulnerability of personal information in the digital age, and is particularly troubling because of the involvement of Social Security numbers.

"It's scary," said Eric Chiu, president of Mountain View security company HyTrust. "That could be information used to steal our identities or drain our bank accounts."

The court records said Ngo obtained the personal data from Ohio-based U.S. Info Search through Court Ventures, a Southern California firm bought by consumer credit-reporting giant Experian in March 2012. Court Ventures' customers typically used U.S. Info Search's data to find court records.

"Ngo contracted with Court Ventures fraudulently representing that he was a private investigator from Singapore," the records said, adding that he ran a business from his home and sold the data from websites he administered.

The information he peddled included "names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, places of work, duration of work, dates of employment, state driver's license numbers, mother's maiden names, bank account numbers, bank routing numbers, e-mail account names and addresses and other account passwords," the court records said.

The prosecutor in Ngo's case testified that the crook's customers had "access to the U.S. Info Search database containing 200 million U.S. citizens' information," though he said the government didn't know how many people actually had data stolen.

But that assessment was disputed by Experian.

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