Money & Business

A Giant Target: Lessons From a Massive Case of Retail Fraud

By / Dec 20, 2013 (photo by j.reed/Flickr)

Target’s announcement that it was the victim of a widespread holiday-season data breach sent millions of consumers rushing to check their credit and debit accounts for fraudulent activity. Associations have been working to inform consumers and help protect them from such incidents.

The news brought the opposite of good cheer to Target and its customers yesterday, less than a week before Christmas.

The retail giant announced on Thursday that the company had been the victim of a widespread cybertheft effort, potentially exposing the payment data and personal information of as many as 40 million customers to fraud.

Worse, the data breach occurred between November 27 and December 15, much of the prime holiday shopping season, and affected nearly all Target locations, according to security journalist Brian Krebs. The company issued a statement on the breach, aiming to reassure customers that the incident is under investigation and that they may safely shop in Target stores.

“Target’s first priority is preserving the trust of our guests, and we have moved swiftly to address this issue, so guests can shop with confidence. We regret any inconvenience this may cause,” Target Chairman, President, and CEO Gregg Steinhafel said in the statement. “We take this matter very seriously and are working with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.”

Associations have done much to research and respond to similar incidents, which are becoming more and more frequent. More details:

A common problem: As the National Retail Federation noted in its 2013 Organized Retail Crime Survey, nearly all retailers in the study— just over 93 percent of those polled—admitted to being the victim of some kind of retail theft in the past year. While that was down from the 2012 survey’s 96 percent, it remained remarkably high. And 8 in 10 respondents believed the danger was growing, according to the study, which also noted that fraud involving store credit and gift cards is a new problem retailers face. “We are extremely concerned by the organized patterns that are taking place in the retail industry right now as these crime gangs continue to find ways to maneuver the system,” NRF Vice President of Loss Prevention Rich Mellor said in a statement. Target is far from the only major chain to suffer from this kind of incident. Last year, another major retail chain, Barnes & Noble, reported that it was the victim of widespread credit card fraud, though the crime involved direct tampering with its credit card machines. And numerous convention-goers recently reported unauthorized charges on their credit cards after they attended conferences in Boston in recent months.

Banks fighting fraud: Target has recommended that debit and credit card users look closely at their statements and report any unauthorized activity both to the company and to their bank. A recent American Bankers Association study found that U.S. banks were able to stop $9 of every $10 of attempted deposit account fraud in 2012. While the association reported that the industry stopped $5 billion in fraudulent debit card usage last year, debit card fraud still accounted for 54 percent of its total loss, while check fraud was responsible for 37 percent.

Keep yourself safe: Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Teresa Dixon Murray notes that debit cards have fewer safety features than do credit cards. A credit card charge can be suspended while a fraud claim is settled; with a debit card, the money is already gone from the account, and the dispute claim is trying to get that money back. The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center recommends using debit cards only sparingly and having one for purchases that is on a separate account not linked to accounts for primary checking or savings.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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