Rakuten Breach: Live By The Web, Get Punished By The Web

Please forgive the cliché, but when hundreds of online shoppers say that your site is sick, it should lie down. The Japanese E-Commerce powerhouse Rakuten, which is just months away from a planned major push against Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) in the U.S., is finding itself in the frustrating position of seeing literally hundreds of its customers posting about fraud problems traced to Rakuten. And yet the $4.7 billion global retailer—operating in 27 countries—can't seem to trace the problem.

An online publication of Consumer Reports magazine, Consumerist, has taken the lead in this coverage, and Rakuten's shopper victims have created their own site, much to the presumed non-delight of Rakuten. The site's called simply Rakuten Fraud. What's worse than having a security hole on your site on the eve of a major rollout impacting lots of customers? How about being unable to figure out where the hole is?

Bernard Luthi, the COO of Rakuten.com, has become the public face of this breach and is arguing that there's little his team can do until they can somehow replicate or trace the source of these breaches.

"We want to assure our customers and those of you who have posted on this site that we take all reports of this nature very seriously. We are investigating the issue at length, so far bringing in a series of specialists and a third-party technical forensics company to try to identify why this should be. Despite their and our efforts, we cannot identify any breach in our systems that would explain these reports," Luthi posted on the Rakuten Fraud site Tuesday (June 11) night. If nothing else, Luthi deserves a lot of credit for responding directly on that site.

On Monday (June 10), Luthi posted that the site had started using a tokenization package for its payment system, something that—according to shopper complaints—doesn't seemed to have stopped the problem.

The complaints suggest two different methods of fraud.The complaints suggest two different methods of fraud. The first is simply a shopper buying something on Rakuten's U.S. site—the former Buy.com—and then seeing unrelated charges appearing on their payment card statement. "The purchases made were diverse, ranging from time clocks in Colombia to newspaper subscriptions in Cleveland to plane tickets in Germany," reported one of the Consumerist stories.

Even a New Jersey police department issued an advisory that residents "should look out for suspicious charges" if using Rakuten.com. That department said the frauds go back to late February.

That police report said its allegations go beyond bogus purchases into traditional identity theft areas, with victims' names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth in additional to payment card details being used to open new accounts at online equipment suppliers.

The buyer was traced to an address in Bogotá, Colombia, Bogota (NJ) Detective Sgt. Jonathan Misskerg told the Star-Ledger. After the items were purchased, they were sent to an Englewood (NJ) company, which then shipped the items to Colombia, Misskerg said.

Another element of the frustration is that Rakuten's model is one where sellers can control their own stores on the Rakuten site. That means that malicious code—possibly even a Trojan horse—could be on an ad or a video or an image or almost anywhere. It might do little other than plant itself on the victim's computer, where it could capture keystrokes and gather all of its information that way.

That's frustrating because it could be very difficult for Rakuten to find, especially if the fraudster keeps changing where the malicious code is hidden. For that matter, the code might never have been on Rakuten's site at all. Someone watching the site might be gathering information on visitors and then sending them Spam E-mail, which includes the malicious code. That could explain why the victims had all visited Rakuten, but Rakuten can't find any code problems on its site.

Indeed, that last tactic would be a fine way to hurt Rakuten without actually having to break its security. Then again, any site that allows a huge number of merchants to control their own pages on its site is going to have limits as to how tight security can ever be. That approach means it's less like running one large Rakuten site and more like they are overseeing a community of many independent sites. If a cyberthief wants to hide in plain sight, what an ideal home. He/she needn't even break through security. Just set up shop as a merchant and they'll happily hand you a set of keys, albeit a restricted set of keys.

Note to Rakuten's chieftans in Japan: Welcome to America, where cybercrime is our most popular export and import.