The relationship you have with your bank is a deeply personal one. Think about it: Money carries enormous weight in people’s lives, and where do they keep their money? A bank, usually. In addition to your money, your bank also stores a ton of your sensitive personal information.
So when Brady Cook was a victim of a data breach, he was really surprised by the way his bank handled it. One day in early March, Cook received a letter from Wells Fargo, with some jarring news:
“We want to let you know on January 20, 2016, a Wells Fargo internal investigation discovered an employee accessed your account information without a legitimate business purpose and emailed an image of your profile information to an external Internet site that provides disposable mailbox accounts.”
That image included his name, address, birthdate, phone number, account numbers and Social Security number. The letter went on to tell him that the employee had been fired, that Wells Fargo contacted the email provider and had the information deleted, and that Wells Fargo would provide Cook with 2 years of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection services.
And that was pretty much it: More than a month after the bank discovered the breach, Cook opened his mail to find out some of his most sensitive information had been compromised.
“For something that is so personal and I trust them with, this is a very impersonal measure,” he said of the letter. When we talked to Cook right after he received the letter, he was dissatisfied with the information he was given, and he had lots of questions.
“It’s just very passive. It says we assure you that it no longer exists — well no duh, that’s the point of a temporary email account,” he said. “But for the 15 minutes that it exists, what the hell happened to it?”
Wells Fargo Responds
Cook wanted to know why an employee was even capable of taking a screen shot of his information in the first place. He wanted to know why he only got 2 years of identity theft services, when what this former Wells Fargo employee did puts Cook at lifelong risk of having his identity stolen. (A Social Security number is the holy grail of identity theft, because unlike a bank account number, you can’t easily get a new one, and it can be used to commit fraud in dozens of ways.)
We put each of these questions to Wells Fargo, and they responded to us by email. Here’s what a bank spokesman had to say.
On the 2 years of identity theft services: “24 months of identity theft protection service is an industry standard in these types of cases. We encourage all customers to monitor their accounts and credit on a regular basis, and to do so more closely for the 24-month period after any event that results in the inappropriate exposure or potential exposure of personal or account information, regardless of the cause. If the customer has specific concerns at the end of the 24-month period, we encourage them to contact us.”
In response to the question about why an employee can take screen shots of customer information: “We train our team members on the proper handling of customer information, and continually enhance our policies, procedures, and technology to protect customer information. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the training we provided, this individual chose to act in a manner that is inconsistent with our policies and procedures.”
The bank also sent a general statement, saying it has reached out to customers affected by the incident, indicating that Cook was not the only person whose information was compromised. Citing the ongoing investigation, Wells Fargo declined to say how many customers were affected by the former employee’s actions.
The ‘Industry Standard’
It’s true that some sort of complimentary identity theft services is the olive branch financial services typically extend to their customers after a data breach. A few years ago, a year of free services was more common, but as data breaches continue to become an almost normal part of a consumer’s life, that time frame has gotten a little longer.
“A lot of the institutions have gone from one year to two,” said Adam Levin, co-founder of Credit.com and an author of “Swiped”, a recently-published book on the growing threat of identity theft. “There are many people who feel it should be 10. It’s anybody’s guess to if and when something’s going to be used.”
The specific service Cook received was a custom product from Identity Guard, which includes quarterly credit updates, credit reports and scores from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, identity theft victim assistance and $20,000 of identity theft insurance.
Cook has been monitoring his credit (you can do that by getting two free credit scores with regular updates on Credit.com, as well as pulling your free annual credit reports) and, so far, he hasn’t seen any evidence of identity theft. It has now been almost five months since he got that letter from Wells Fargo, and while he says his frustration isn’t as intense as it initially was, he’s still bothered by what happened. The whole experience made him want to cancel his accounts with Wells Fargo, but in the end, he only closed some business accounts he had with the bank.
“I have had accounts with them for over 12 years and I can’t just close those accounts and cards without temporarily hurting my credit,” he said in an email. “I have some high-limit credit cards with them and it helps my utilization ratio since I never get [above] 10% on that card. Also closing accounts and opening new ones requires more credit pulls and other things.”
Cook summed up his experience — and the experience of any victim of a data breach — pretty well in that email: “It’s just a damn hassle.”