Security – Trials & Tribulations

As a business, one of the greatest fears is a security breach that exposes customer financial information.  It’s a nightmare; since being hit by something like this could potentially cripple a business.  We recently had a bit of a scare when 2 customers commented that fraudulent activity had occurred on their credit cards soon after placing an order with us.  Not surprisingly, we decided to conduct a full audit of the site and in the interest of transparency felt we should also write about it here on the blog.

To skip to the end first – there is no security breach on the site.


To understand the story, it’s worth discussing the security procedures that are in-place to keep a customer’s financial information safe.

We do not store credit card information

Those of you who have ever had to edit your order will notice that they generally end up saying ‘Check / Money Order’ on the edited order.  The only time an edited order would say something else would be if the customer had called in to provide us the credit card information again.    This is because we do not store or have access to a credit card once the order is placed.

When an order is placed on the site, the credit card information is sent in an encrypted format to the site and from there, to the credit card gateway who authorises the charge on the card.  We are then provided a token indicating the authorisation for our records.  This allows us to charge a card for the authorised order amount only.  The only credit card information that we store is the card type, the last 4 digits and the expiry date.  None of that is sufficient to run a new charge on the card.

With PayPal of course, all we get is the e-mail address that the payment came from.

Everything is encrypted

The Checkout Page is completely encrypted in a SSL 128-bit encryption (the same method that the big retailers like Amazon use which is basically an industry standard) and anytime we access our backend, all the data passed back and forth is encrypted as well.  So the card is completely secure during transit and on the site.

Regular Scans

Lastly, both our server host as well as our developer regularly run scans to ensure that aren’t any viruses / malware / etc sitting among our files.

The Incidents

Once in a while, a customer contacts us that they have had to change their credit card information due to fraud.  We generally take note of it and run a quick security assessment  but due to the above on-going security procedures it’s generally not likely to have originated from our site.

This time a pair of customers contacted us separately in a very short period, both with very similar stories – initial orders placed very close together, fraudulent activity on the same day, both having orders placed on our site.   That seriously concerned us, enough that we decided to shift gears and focus on a security audit.

The Audit

Since both customer placed the orders remotely, we knew it couldn’t be an HR issue (remember, there’s literally no way for us to get a credit card number unless a customer calls us to place the order over the phone). As such, we knew to focus on our attention on the site and the site code.

We took the audit on in 3 parts.

1) External Audit

We ran the site through a number of external company verifications (e.g. McAffee, Google’s Webmaster, etc) initially to see if the problem was picked up by them. This ensured that no external scripts was being loaded from the site which could have caused problems.

2) Automated File Review

We then began an audit on the files in the site and database. This was an automated process that basically reviewed every file on the site to ensure that it was meant to be there; as well as looking for specific known malicious code.

3) Eyes on Code

Lastly, we put eyes on the code.  Every single file and script that was involved in the process of providing the checkout page on Starlit Citadel was reviewed. Since this is the only location where the credit card information is input, this was the most important ‘fail point’ and thus the extra scrutiny.

In all three tests, we could not locate any potential security problems.While there is never any guarantee, it’s extremely unlikely that we had  a breach in security.  It still is something that had to be done; and I’m open to any other suggestions for things we can do as well to improve security if you have any.  Overall though, it made for a couple of extremely stressful and expensive days.