Taking over a postal address, An Post edition

As I announced a few months ago, I’m moving to London. One of the tasks before the move is setting up postal address redirection, so that the services unable to mail me across the Irish Sea can still reach me. Luckily I know for a fact that An Post (the Irish postal service) has a redirection service, if not a cheap one.

A couple of weeks ago, I went on to sign up for the services, and I found that I had two choices: I could go to the post office (which is inside the EuroSpar next door), show a photo ID and a proof of address, and pay cash or with a debit card1; or I could fill in the form online, pay with a credit card, and then post out a physical signed piece of paper. I chose the latter.

There are many laughable things that I could complain about, in the process of setting up the redirection, but I want to focus on what I think is the big, and most important problem. After you choose the addresses (original and new destination), it will ask you where you want your confirmation PIN sent.

There is a reason why they do that. I set up the redirect well before I moved, and in particular I chose to redirect mail from my apartment to my local office — this way I can either batch together the mail, or simply ask for an inter-office forwarding. This meant I had access to both the original and the new address at the same time — but for many people, particularly moving out of the country, by the time they know where to forward the mail, they might only have access to the new address.

The issue is that if you decide to get the PIN at the new address, the only notification sent to the old address is one letter, confirming the activation of the redirection, sent to the old address. This is likely meant so you can call An Post and have them cancel the redirection if that was done against your will.

While this stops a possible long-term takeover of a mail address, it still allows a wide window of opportunity for a takeover. Also, it has one significant drawback: the letter does not tell you where the mail will be redirected!

Let’s say you want to take over someone’s address (let’s look later what for). First you need to know their address; this is the simplest part of course. Now you can fill in the request on An Post’s website for the redirection — the original address is not given any indication that a request was filled – and get the PIN at the new address. Once the PIN is received, there is some time to enable the redirection.

Until activation is completed, and the redirection time is selected, no communication is given to the original address.

If your target happens to be travelling or otherwise unable to get to their mail for a few weeks, then you have an opportunity. You can take over the address, get some documents at the given address, and get your hands on them. Of course the target will become suspicious when coming back, finding a note about redirection and no mail. But finding a way to recover the mail without being tied to an identity is left as an exercise to the reader.

So what would you accomplish, beside annoying your target, and possibly get some of their unsolicited mail? Well, there are a significant amount of interesting targets in the postal mail you receive in Ireland.

For instance, take credit card statements. Tesco Bank does not allow you to receive them electronic, and Ulster Bank will send you the paper copy even though you opt-in to all the possible electronic communications. And a credit card statement in Ireland include a lot more information than other countries, including just enough to take over the credit card. Tesco Bank for instance will authenticate you with the 16 digits PAN (on the statement), your full address (on the statement), the credit limit (you guessed it, on the statement), and your date of birth (okay, this one is not on the statement, but you can probably find my date of birth pretty easily).

And even if you don’t want to take over the full credit card, having the PAN is extremely useful in and by itself, to take over other accounts. And since you have the statement, it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out what the card is used for — take over an Amazon account, you can take over a lot more things.

But there are more concrete problems too — for instance I do receive a significant amount of pseudo-cash2 in form of Tesco vouchers — having physical control of the vouchers effectively means having the cash in your hand. Or say you want to get a frequent guest or frequent flyer card, because a card is often just enough to get the benefits, and have access to the information on the account. Or just get enough of a proof of address to register on any other service that will require one.

Because let’s remember: an authentication system is just as weak as its weakest link. So all those systems requiring a proof of address? You can skip over all of them by just having one recent enough proof of address, by hijacking someone’s physical mail. And that’s just a matter of paying for it.

  1. An Post is well known for only accepting VISA Debit cards, and refuses both MasterCard Debit and VISA Credit cards. Funnily enough, they issue MasterCard cards, but that’s a story for another time.
  2. I should at some point write a post about pseudo-cash and the value of a euro when it’s not a coin.

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