Thousands of Floridians Become Victims of ID Theft

September 30, 2008

Florida resident Stephen Carlisle was not alarmed by the letter he received from Bank of New York Mellon Shareowners Services, notifying him that a data breach had exposed sensitive information from thousands of customers.

But days later, Carlisle grew concerned after he got an identical letter from Countrywide Financial Corp., describing a data breach and also offering free credit monitoring services.

“I wondered if it was legitimate,” said Carlisle, a Fort Lauderdale attorney.

In recent weeks thousands of Floridians have received such letters from both Mellon and Countrywide telling customers that their personal information had been compromised. Both companies are urging customers to monitor their bank and credit card accounts for suspicious activity and offered two years of free credit monitoring services to clients.

Many Floridians have wondered if they have become victims of identity theft after receiving such letters. More than 31 consumers called the Florida Attorney General’s office to complain or voice concerns. But experts said a data breach doesn’t mean that you have been victimized. It only means that your information might have been exposed and you need to take proactive steps such as monitoring your credit reports.

Jay Foley, one of the founders of Identity Theft Resource Center, an advocacy group based in California, said consumers must put emotions aside and determine what kind of information was possibly taken.

“It is not the end of the world,” Foley said, noting steps can be taken to avoid — or respond to — a case of identity theft.

Mellon reported the personal information of more than 745,000 Floridians’ bank accounts — including names, mailing addresses, Social Security numbers and transaction activity — may have been exposed after a vendor lost six backup tapes on Feb. 27 during a transport to a storage facility.

Foley said consumers should place a fraud alert with the three major credit bureaus and close bank accounts that have been compromised.

Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911, a company that educates and helps consumers keep their information safe, said consumers should take advantage of the free credit monitoring services offered by the two banks.

“However, even after doing that, consumers need to remain vigilant,” Levin said, adding that consumers should monitor their credit for at least the next five years.

Countrywide officials have not provided any details on how many Floridians have been affected by the data breach.

“We have no evidence to date to indicate that any customer has been the victim of identity theft or fraud,” Ginny Zoraster, a Countrywide spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. “To ensure the protection of all involved, we are notifying customers whose information may have been exposed.”

Countrywide, which was acquired by Bank of America in July, and investigators reported that a former employee had sold names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other information contained in home loan applications to a third party.

Rene Rebollo Jr., of Pasadena, Calif., a senior financial analyst for Countrywide’s subprime mortgage division, admitted to investigators that he stole customer data over the course of two years and made up to $70,000, according to a statement released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He’s accused of selling the data to Wahid Siddiqi, 25, of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Both men were arrested last month.

Information from: South Florida Sun Sentinel, http://www.sun

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