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Ameriprise notifying 226,000 customers, advisers of data theft

A stolen laptop contained names, account numbers and Social Security numbers

By Todd R. Weiss
January 26, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Financial services company Ameriprise Financial Inc. is notifying some 158,000 customers and 68,000 financial advisers this week that a laptop containing personal information about them -- including names, account numbers or Social Security numbers -- was stolen late last month.
In an announcement yesterday, Minneapolis-based Ameriprise, which was spun off last year by the American Express Co., said the data breach occurred when the laptop was stolen from an employee's locked car in a public parking lot. The name of the city where the theft occurred is not being released because the case remains under investigation by police, according to Ameriprise spokesman Steven Connolly.
"Basically, it was someone smashing windows and stealing items from a car," he said. "They took additional items, including a briefcase, which contained the laptop." The car was not parked in an Ameriprise company parking lot, so the thief did not target the vehicle looking for data from the company, he said.
"It was a random criminal act," Connolly said.
The laptop used password protection for Novell Inc. networking applications and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software, but the data files containing the customer and adviser data were not encrypted, as required by company policies, Connolly said.
One of the data files included only the names and internal Ameriprise account numbers of 158,000 customers, while the second file included the names and Social Security numbers of 68,000 Ameriprise advisers. No other personal information was contained in the files, the company said. Ameriprise has approximately 2.4 million customers.
"This particular employee had legitimate business reasons to have these files," Connolly said, but the employee failed to use required processes to encrypt the data. "What shouldn't have happened is the information shouldn't have been removed from the company's offices without the proper data security."
The employee, who broke written company policies, was fired because of the incident, Connolly said.
Notification letters about the data theft were mailed to affected customers and advisers beginning last Saturday, he said. It took company workers several weeks to re-create the files that are missing, and then it took additional time to cross-reference the names, account numbers or Social Security numbers to find the addresses and other information needed to send out the letters, he said.
There are no indications that any of the data has been used improperly, Connolly said.
"A name and that internal Ameriprise account number are not enough information to do anything" with a customer's account, he said. "It's not even close."
At least three other pieces of personal information are needed for Ameriprise customers to gain access to their accounts, hesaid.
Brian Heath, president of the U.S. Advisor Group for Ameriprise Financial Services Inc., apologized for the incident in a statement.
"We take our responsibility to safeguard personal information very seriously," he said. "Although the risk of misuse of the data contained in these files is very low, we apologize for any inconvenience or concern this situation may cause. We have made every effort to notify affected individuals and to make them aware of the situation and the steps we are taking."

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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