Bookstore breach puts spotlight on security awareness

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 9:27 p.m.

The breach of credit- and debit-card readers at dozens of Barnes & Noble bookstores, including two in Allegheny County, might be a cautionary tale for computer users, security analysts said.

Don't click on suspect email links or attachments, said Winn Schwartau, founder of the Security Awareness Co. in Nashville. The company provides digital security training for large corporations.

“You have not won the Paraguayan lottery. The Nigerian dictator's wife does not like you. You did not win the Powerball. You did not win a free iPad. No, you didn't.”

Schwartau offered his comments after Barnes & Noble Inc. confirmed last week a “sophisticated criminal effort” targeted customers who used card-swipe payment devices at 63 stores in nine states. The two in Pennsylvania are in Homestead and Robinson.

Hackers, by means that are under federal investigation, put bugs in the devices, called PIN pads. The bugs allowed the hackers to capture customer credit card and debit PIN numbers, the company said.

It might be that some company employees fell victim to an email “phishing” attack, in which criminals try to trick computer users into clicking on a nefarious link or attachment, Schwartau said. That could have opened the door to hackers accessing the debit and credit card information.

Barnes & Noble disconnected all its PIN pads last month and has encouraged customers to check with their banks for unauthorized transactions and change their PIN numbers.

Barnes & Noble said one device was compromised in each of the affected stores. The company, based in New York City, declined to answer Tribune-Review questions, citing an FBI investigation.

Phishing messages often suggest a prize or other gift awaits the email user. Sometimes the messages pose as official correspondence from a financial institution. Schwartau said legitimate banks will not “email you and say: ‘Click here to fix your data.'”

“It's common sense,” Schwartau said. “If it's too good to be true, it is — and it's hostile.”

It's possible the Barnes & Noble PIN pads somehow were swapped out or physically manipulated, said Kevin Kjosa, an assistant director at the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I think the lesson for business owners is to treat those PIN pads like cash and scrutinize them,” Kjosa said.

“Cybersecurity is fast becoming everyone's responsibility,” he said. “This is a case study in that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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