Some 145,000 consumers nationwide may have been impacted by a breach of their private and financial information, according to ChoicePoint, a commercial information service company at the center of the controversy. Potential identity theft victims may be in all 50 states, the company said today.

The company said last week that thieves apparently used previously stolen identities to create what appeared to be legitimate businesses seeking ChoicePoint accounts. The fraudsters then opened up accounts and received sensitive data on consumers, including Social Security numbers, credit reports and addresses.

ChoicePoint in late January began notifying customers whose confidential data may have been fraudulently obtained. Starting today, the company will offer consumers free credit reports and credit-monitoring services for one year.

ChoicePoint claims the incident did not arise from a breach of its security or a hacking, and today posted a message to consumers on its Web site.

“We do not know how many of these approximately 145,000 consumers may be actual victims of identity theft but we have been informed by law enforcement officials that they have identified and directly notified approximately 750 consumers nationwide that some part of their identity information has been compromised,” the message states.

The company has set up a special toll-free number for customers to call, and has purchased tri-bureau credit reports and a one-year credit monitoring service for each individual whose information may have been obtained.

“We want you to know we take this criminal activity seriously and are aggressively addressing it.In addition to assisting law enforcement officials, we are taking voluntary actions at company expense to help affected consumers protect their identity,” ChoicePoint writes on its Web site.

In October 2004, the company said it detected possible signs of fraudulent activities in several small business accounts based in the Los Angeles area. ChoicePoint alerted the local Sheriff’s department, which opened up an investigation.

“These criminals were able to pass our customer authentication due diligence processes by using stolen identities to create and produce the documents needed to appear legitimate. As small business customers of ChoicePoint, these fraudsters accessed products that contained basic telephone directory-type data (name and address information) as well as a combination of Social Security numbers and/or driver’s license numbers and, at times, abbreviated credit reports.”

The fraudsters obtained additional public record information, including bankruptcies, liens and judgments, professional licenses and real property data.

Last week, a Nigerian citizen pled no contest in California state court and was sentenced to 16 months in prison in connection with this incident.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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