Customers' lost bank info found

December 21, 2005

By Sharon Terlep, The Detroit News

A wayward computer tape that contained personal data for more than 2 million LaSalle Bank mortgage customers -- including 320,000 in Michigan -- has been safely returned after turning up amid a mound of unmarked packages.

After a month of fruitless searching, an employee of the DHL courier service found an unopened package in a stash of parcels in Wilmington, Ohio, that had lost their identifying air bills, bank officials said Tuesday.

When workers opened the package, they found the computer tape and a return address and shipped it back to LaSalle Bank subsidiary ABM AMRO Mortgage Group Inc., where it arrived on Monday.

And so ended the monthlong mystery of what happened to millions of names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other bits of information that were lost in transit from Chicago to Texas.

The mishap stirred up enough concern among customers that they overloaded a hot line and Web site set up to help.

"I guess that solves the problem, but it sure took a long time," customer Paula Steiger of Shelby Township said. "I've worked an entire lifetime to build good credit, then all my information was out there for anyone to take."

ABN AMRO officials said there's no reason to suspect the package was opened or otherwise tampered with, but the company cannot guarantee the tape didn't get into the wrong hands during the four weeks it was missing.

To be safe, ABN AMRO will enroll all 2 million customers in a credit monitoring service for one year, said Thomas Goldstein, ABN AMRO chairman and chief executive officer.

Even that process has proved to be trying, however. A Web site and toll-free hot line set up for customers to sign up for the credit monitoring were jammed Tuesday because of high volume, irking thousands of already frustrated customers. Goldstein said the company is working to fix the Web problems.

"I feel terrible about the frustration our customers are having," Goldstein said. "This whole process hasn't really been our choosing."

Steiger and other customers learned of the mishap last week, when the company sent letters informing them that the tape was missing. Federal law requires companies to notify customers in such cases, but Goldstein said he would have done so anyway.

The tape was lost on November 18 while en route from ABN AMRO's processing center in Chicago to the Experian credit reporting bureau in Allen, Texas. ABN AMRO figured out the data was missing when the package didn't arrive at Experian as scheduled.

By the time customers found out, dozens of employees of ABN AMBRO, DHL and Experian had spent three weeks scouring mail rooms, delivery centers and warehouses in search of the tape.

The quest came to an end in a 1.6 million-square-foot storage facility, where a DHL employee searching for the package found the unmarked envelope among piles of similarly anonymous packages, which are sent to a special center to be opened and returned to their owners. "A search for a single shipment among a million can take some time," DHL spokesman Jonathan Baker said.

The tape didn't contain credit card numbers or any information that thieves could use to directly buy goods. But the Social Security numbers, with names and address attached, meant the customers would have been vulnerable to identity theft.

That's why ABN AMRO has changes under way to avoid having to send sensitive information through a delivery service. The company has been working since spring to set up a system to transmit the information via computer. Information that must be sent physically will be delivered by a company specially equipped to transport sensitive information, Goldstein said.

ABN AMRO isn't the first financial company to fall victim to a botched delivery.

Citigroup subsidiary CitiFinancial said earlier this year that tapes with data for 3.9 million customers were lost by UPS while en route to a credit bureau.

A year ago, Bank of America lost tapes with charge card information for 1.2 government card holders while sending the information to a backup data center.

Steiger was relieved to hear the tape had been found, but her confidence is shaken.

"I certainly hope what they're saying is true," she said. "And that it's not just to get everyone off their backs."

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