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Why You Aren’t the Only One Who Knows the Answers to Your Security Questions

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If you’re protecting important personal accounts with nothing more than a few security questions, it may be time for an upgrade.

A study from Google recently compared the use of security questions to other account recovery methods like SMS (short text messages) and an alternative email address. It found that true or made-up responses to questions like, “What was your mother’s maiden name?” or specific answers to prompts such as “Favorite Superhero,” “First Car” or “Childhood Phone Number,” weren’t a reliable way to recover or protect an account.

The basic takeaway is simple: Account recovery (or account takeover) is easier to accomplish when using “security questions” because too often answers to those questions can be guessed and/or figured out through a process of elimination. The other methods, like SMS or email recovery, require a would-be scammer to have a user’s phone or know how to access the alternate email account used to receive the recovery link. While the study was Google-centric, the same goes for any site you visit that allows users to answer security questions in order to regain access to an account when they forgot their user name or password.

I’ve advocated a form of strategic lying as a way to foil would-be account take-over, which I explain in my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. While I still think it’s a good strategy,, the problem with this tactic, as highlighted by the Google study, is the quality of lies told. The most important issue is memorability.

The Google study suggests that most people aren’t very good at lying, at least when conjuring up answers to security questions. The authors saw, “a very sharp decline within 1 month of enrollment for [memorability of] all questions. This is particularly true for ‘favorite food’ and ‘childhood best friend,’ questions which are not necessarily factual and to which users may change their minds or have to choose from among several possibilities at the time of enrollment.”

While I still think strategic lying works, it’s no longer the best strategy. It only works if you can avoid the pitfalls uncovered in the Google study, and that might be a pretty big “if.”

What Were Those Pitfalls?

The study found that 16% of security questions had answers “routinely listed publicly in online social-networking profiles.” Live by the share, die by the share.

This held true even if the users had all their privacy settings toggled tight, because would-be hijackers could use something called an inference attack method, whereby sensitive information can be found (or guessed) by surfing the timelines and other social sharing of a user’s friends.

Identity-related crime is often a family (and friends) affair. The study found that partners, family members, friends and even acquaintances, had a pretty good shot at guessing their way into your accounts. As noted, “Schechter et al. found in a laboratory study that acquaintances could guess 17% of answers correctly in five tries or fewer, confirming similar results from earlier user studies.”

This is how “Nudegate” happened in 2014, only in that instance the problem was the guessability of celebrities’ security questions—people who lived in the public eye, had been interviewed exhaustively and had few secrets. Make no mistake, when it comes to identity-related crimes and the people who commit them, we are all celebrities.

The study also found that other questions could be answered by dipping into publicly accessible records. Among the instances of low-security questions, the study found that “at least 30% of Texas residents’ mothers’ maiden names can be deduced from birth and marriage records.” Many other potential questions had “very few possible answers,” one example being “favorite superhero.”

Finally, there was social engineering. This is a constant issue. In one cited study, the researchers “were able to extract answers to personal knowledge questions from 92% of users via email phishing.”

What You Can Do

Mark Twain said it first (and perhaps best): “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Unfortunately, if you tend to tell the truth about yourself via social media, the truth may well get you “got” when it comes to security protocols on the sites you log into. If you’re not good at making up good lies and remembering them — or you just don’t want the hassle — you might want to set up SMS recovery.

Having a PIN code or temporary password sent to your phone via SMS, or a reset link sent via email to an alternate account, seems to be the safer and more reliable option for account recovery, because the chances a would-be attacker has access to your phone or your recovery email account (if you have one) is just not as good as the chances of a good scam artist figuring out the answers to your security questions.

If you still don’t want to give the mega giant harvesters of personally identifiable information your phone number for two-factor authentication, become a better liar. Given the high degree of forgettable security questions, try a system that mixes the truth with something unknowable, or at least hard to guess. Maybe you can sprinkle some simple math in the answer, or make all the dates a month and five days wrong. Only you know what will work in terms of memorability, but you can never know what won’t work when it comes to keeping the bad guys out of your business. And, if you think the bad guys may already have your information, you should check your credit for signs of deeper identity theft. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

Regardless what you decide to do, be careful. With identity-related crimes being the third certainty in life, you need more than luck and a half-hearted security protocol to defend against the threats that are “out there” 24/7/365.

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Image: Rostislav_Sedlacek

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