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Globe and Worcester T&G customer credit info mistakenly released

Credit and bank card numbers of as many as 240,000 subscribers of The Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette were inadvertently distributed with bundles of T&G newspapers on Sunday, officials of the newspapers said Tuesday.

The confidential information was on the back of paper used in wrapping newspaper bundles for distribution to carriers and retailers. As many as 9,000 bundles of the T&G, wrapped in paper containing subscribers’ names and their confidential information, were distributed Sunday to 2,000 retailers and 390 carriers in the Worcester area, said Alfred S. Larkin Jr., spokesman for the Globe.

In addition, routing information for personal checks of 1,100 T&G subscribers also may have been inadvertently released.

The Globe and T&G, which are both owned by The New York Times Co., share a computer system.

The release of the data is another in a long list of high-profile incidents in which companies, universities, and federal and state agencies have had sensitive financial information lost or stolen.

Globe and T&G officials said the newspapers have notified the four major credit card companies — American Express, Discover, MasterCard, and Visa — of the problem. The newspapers will turn over the card numbers of subscribers who may have been affected to the companies upon request. As of last night, Mastercard and Visa have asked for the details. The newspapers are doing the same thing with banks of customers who may be affected.

About 227,000 Globe subscribers pay by credit or bank cards, although it’s unclear exactly how many had their information released. Larkin, however, said a reconstruction of the errors that took place suggests a majority of those affected are Globe subscribers.

The newspapers have also set up a hot line, 1-888-665-2644, for customers to call to learn whether their financial information may have been distributed. As an extra precaution, newspaper officials also urged subscribers to contact their credit card companies if they are concerned about unauthorized transactions.

So far, newspaper officials said, there have been no reports that the financial information has been misused.

In a letter to subscribers in Wednesday’s Globe, Richard H. Gilman, the paper’s publisher, said, "We deeply value the trust our subscribers place in us and are working diligently to remedy this situation. Immediate steps have been taken internally at the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette to increase security around credit card reporting. We regret the disruption and inconvenience that this incident may cause."

The T&G’s publisher, Bruce Bennett, issued similar comments in Wednesday’s T&G.

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in San Diego, more than 100 incidents of lost or stolen financial information were reported over the past year. Among them: Bank of America Corp., which lost computer data tapes containing personal information of 1.2 million federal employees, including some senators; Ameritrade, the on-line discount broker, which said it lost a back-up computer tape containing the personal information of some 200,000 customers; and the US Air Force, which confirmed that personal data of 33,000 officers and enlisted personnel were hacked from an online system.

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said the T&G incident — which she called "most unusual" because of how it happened — underscores the need for companies to focus on more than just online security to protect the sensitive information of customers, clients, and employees.

"What we’ve learned is there are many ways that sensitive information is exposed," Givens said. "Every entity needs to examine all the ways it uses information and develop security safeguards that go far beyond the computer system."

Larkin said the newspapers were first notified of the security breach on Monday by a clerk at a Cumberland Farms store. It took until late Monday for officials to confirm the data on the back of the paper were credit and debit card numbers. Senior management learned of the security breach Tuesday morning, Larkin said. The company put out a news release late Tuesday afternoon.

The Globe and T&G financial information was inadvertently released when print-outs with the confidential information were recycled for use as so-called "toppers" for newspaper bundles. A topper, placed on top of abundle of newspapers, is inscribed with the quantity of papers in each bundle and the carrier’s route number.

Officials of the newspapers said they are recovering as many of the toppers as possible, although most have likely been discarded. The T&G has ended the practice of using any recycled paper for toppers. The Globe does not recycle paper in this fashion.

The newspapers have also added a safeguard to the computer system so only the last four numbers of credit and debit cards can be printed.

The Globe and T&G share a computer system. Larkin said the data was printed out on two occasions over the past few weeks by T&G business office employees. In one instance, an employee inadvertently hit the print button, aborted the job before the run was complete, and discarded the paper. In the other instance, another employee began printing a report, but soon realized it was the wrong one, aborted that print job, and discarded the paper.

Larkin said the newspapers are still investigating the T&G’s procedures for handling confidential customer information. But he said the employees weren’t disciplined because the errors were inadvertent. "There’s no reason to believe this was intentional," he said.

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.

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