Target breach reflects U.S. cards’ weak security

The News TribuneDecember 26, 2013 

A customer signs his credit card receipt at a Target store in Tallahassee, Fla.


Was there ever a corporate logo so unfortunately appropriate as Target’s?

In the wake of a massive data breach at the worst time imaginable – the crucial holiday shopping season – the big chain department store is a giant target for customers’ anger.

They have a right to be upset; many of the 40 million shoppers who used a card to make purchases at a Target store between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15 are learning that their information is already turning up for sale on the digital black market.

Despite Target’s promise of free credit monitoring and assurances that customers won’t be held liable for purchases they didn’t make, can it guarantee there will be no effect on people’s credit rating? Everyone has read accounts of victims fighting to clear their good names years after their personal information was stolen.

The company is already the target of civil lawsuits and could face fines of $50 to $90 per cardholder affected by the breach that could total $3.6 billion. Federal regulators are being urged to investigate whether the breach was the result of overly lax security measures. And the Department of Justice is looking into the case.

The scariest thing about the Target breach is that it reflects a general weakness in credit and debit card security measures in this country.

While most other countries’ cards use hard-to-replicate digital chips to store account information, U.S. cards rely on easily copied magnetic strips – essentially the same technology as cassette tapes. That makes them prime targets for card hackers all over the world, for whom making duplicate cards is about as complicated as making a mix tape.

So why aren’t our cards being switched over to the more secure technology? Because everyone involved – stores, banks and credit card companies – wants someone else to foot the bill for it.

Eventually more theft-resistant cards will be the norm. But in the meantime it’s in retailers’ best interest to ensure they have the most secure encryption systems as possible lest they face the same kind of crisis as Target. And it’s in consumers’ best interest to carefully check their credit and debit accounts for any sign that someone is targeting them.

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