40M Credit Card Accounts Could Be Affected

AP Business Writer
2 hours, 14 minutes ago

A computer hacker may have accessed more than 40 million credit card accounts in what could be the largest in a series of recent security breaches involving consumer data, officials said.

MasterCard International Inc. announced Friday that the breach was traced to Atlanta-based CardSystems Solutions Inc., which processes credit card and other payments for banks and merchants. All brands of credit cards could be affected.

The compromised data did not include addresses or Social Security numbers, said MasterCard spokeswoman Sharon Gamsin. The data that may have been viewed — names, banks and account numbers — could be used to steal funds, but not identities.

Gamsin said she did not know how the virus-like computer script that captured customer data got into CardSystems' network, which MasterCard said was infiltrated by an "unauthorized individual." Neither company would elaborate.

The FBI was investigating.

MasterCard said 14 million of its customers may have been exposed to fraud. A spokeswoman for American Express said a small number of its cardholders were affected, but would not give an exact number. Discover Financial Services Inc. wouldn't say whether its customers were affected. Visa USA and a large issuer of cards, MBNA Corp., did not return calls for comment Friday.

The incident was the latest in a series of security lapses affecting consumer information. 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," he said.

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

Other companies that have been hit by security lapses recently include Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and DSW Shoe Warehouse. Federal lawmakers responded by drawing up legislation designed to better protect consumer privacy.

MasterCard announced the breach in a news release Friday, saying it was notifying its card-issuing banks of the problem.

CardSystems then released its own statement, saying it first learned of a potential breach on May 22. The company said it was told by the FBI not to release any information to the public; its statement Friday had been vetted by the agency.

"We were absolutely blindsided" by MasterCard's announcement, CardSystems' chief financial officer, Michael A. Brady, told The Associated Press.

CardSystems, which has a processing center in Tucson, 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."

Earlier this month, Citigroup said UPS lost computer tapes with sensitive information from 3.9 million customers of CitiFinancial, which provides loans.

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

ChoicePoint Inc. 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.

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


Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press.