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Credit card database security breach exposes 40m

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Security Breach Could Expose 40M to Fraud
Jun 17, 7:44 PM (ET)


NEW YORK (AP) - A security breach of customer information at a credit card transaction company could expose to fraud up to 40 million cardholders of multiple brands, MasterCard International Inc. said Friday.

The credit card giant said its security division detected multiple instances of fraud that tracked back to CardSystems Solutions Inc., which processes credit card and other payments for banks and merchants.

The compromised data included names, banks and account numbers - not addresses or Social Security numbers, said MasterCard spokeswoman Sharon Gamsin. Such data could be used to steal funds but not identities.

It was the latest in a series of security breaches affecting valuable consumer data at major financial institutions and data brokers in an increasingly database-driven world.

The breach appears to be the largest yet involving financial data, said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"The steady stream of these disclosures shows the pressing need for regulation of the industry both in terms of limitation in the amount of personal information that companies collect and also liability when these kinds of disclosures occur," Sobel said.

A flurry of disclosures of breaches affecting high-profile companies including Citigroup Inc. (C), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and DSW Shoe Warehouse has prompted federal lawmakers to draw up legislation designed to better protect consumer privacy.

CardSystems was hit by a virus-like computer script that captured customer data for the purpose of fraud, Gamsin said. She said she did not know how the script got into the system. The FBI was investigating.

MasterCard, which said about 14 million of its own cards were exposed, first announced the breach in a news release late Friday afternoon, saying it was notifying its card-issuing banks of the problem.

Under federal law, credit card holders are liable for no more than $50 of unauthorized charges, and many card issuers including MasterCard will even waive the $50.

Reached on his cell phone, CardSystems' chief financial officer, Michael A. Brady, said: "We were absolutely blindsided by a press release by the association."

He refused to answer any questions and referred calls to the company's chief executive, John M. Perry, and its senior vice president of marketing, Bill N. Reeves. A message left for Perry and Reeves at the company's Atlanta offices was not immediately returned.

CardSystems processes less than 0.5 percent of American Express' domestic transactions, said company spokeswoman Judy Tenzer. She said a small number of its cardholders were affected, though she did not have an exact figure.

"We are aware of the situation, we're closely monitoring it and we do have an investigation under way," Tenzer said.

Discover Financial Services Inc. said it was aware of the situation and would not say whether any of its cards were involved. Visa USA and a large issuer of cards, MBNA Corp. (KRB), did not immediately calls seeking comment.

CardSystems, which has a processing center in Tuscon, Ariz., has been in business for more than 15 years and handles transactions for more than 115,000 small to mid-sized businesses, according to the company's Web site. The company says it processes transactions worth more than $15 billion annually.

Sobel said the fact that the latest breach involved a third party "indicates that this is a shadowy industry where the consumer never really knows who is going to be handling and using their personal information," he added. "Presumably, the affected consumers thought they were dealing with MasterCard."

Earlier this month, Citigroup said United Parcel Service lost computer tapes with sensitive information from 3.9 million customers of CitiFinancial, a unit that provides personal and home loans.

There have also been breaches involving other kinds of sensitive data.

ChoicePoint Inc. (CPS) said in February that thieves using stolen identities had created 50 dummy businesses that pulled data including names, addresses and Social Security numbers on as many as 145,000 people.

In March, LexisNexis Inc. disclosed that hackers had commandeered a database and gained access to the personal files of as many as 32,000 people.

The company has since increased its estimate of the people affected to 310,000. Information accessed included names, addresses and Social Security and driver's license numbers, but not credit history, medical records or financial information, corporate parent Reed Elsevier Group PLC said in a statement.

"Hardly a week goes by without startling new examples of breaches of sensitive personal data, reminding us how important it is to pass a comprehensive identity theft prevention bill in Congress quickly," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.


AP writers Anick Jesdanun, Adam Geller, Harry Weber, Ted Bridis, Arthur Rotstein and Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.

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