Texans Swamp Hotline After Personal Data Exposed
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) - A hotline for about 3.5 million Texans who had their Social Security numbers and other personal information exposed to the public remained overwhelmed with calls Thursday — three days after the security breach was divulged.
Some callers to a toll-free number established by the state comptroller’s office got only a recording: “All lines are currently busy. Agents are answering calls 24 hours a day, so please call again later as your call is important.”
Others were forced to wait on hold for extended periods since the hotline received 33,500 calls during just its first two days of operation, said comptroller’s office spokesman R.J. DeSilva.
The FBI and state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office are investigating after personal data was left in some cases for more than a year on a comptroller’s office server that was accessible to the public. An undisclosed number of comptroller’s office personnel involved were dismissed.
Comptroller Susan Combs announced Monday that the exposed information was blocked from public access after her office discovered the problem March 31. Those affected did not learn of the problem until the announcement was made, however, and the hotline wasn’t established until Tuesday.
Costing $40,000, the hotline is scheduled to be in operation at least three weeks, DeSilva said. He said a minimum of 50 operators are taking calls and that their ranks have increased to as high as 115 during peak times. Asked if authorities are considering adding more call-takers, he said, “it’s a daily thing we look at.”
The peak calling period on Tuesday ran from 1 to 5 pm., while by Wednesday it stretched from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. How long each call takes varies greatly based on what questions are asked.
“We expect folks to keep calling,” DeSilva said. “There’s a lot of questions.”
Names, addresses and Social Security numbers were among the data divulged and some peoples’ driver license numbers and birthdates were too. The comptroller’s office has said there’s no evidence any of the information was misused, but the Texas attorney general’s office has declined to comment yet on what effects the breach had, citing an ongoing investigation.
The personal information was exposed after the comptroller’s office attempted to return unclaimed cash and assets to state employees and asked three state agencies, the Teacher Retirement System, the Employee Retirement System, and the Texas Workforce Commission, for electronic information about their members.
That effort returned more than $41 million in unclaimed assets, DeSilva said, but it also created the mistake that exposed details about 3.5 million state employees.
The comptroller’s website also warned callers that they might not get through immediately. “We are currently receiving high call volumes,” said a statement posted there. “Our phone lines are open 24 hours a day; if you have trouble getting through, please try later. Thank you for your patience.
The site also warned, “Please do NOT call 911 or local law enforcement unless you see evidence of specific identity theft.”
Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, said Thursday that his office had received 40 calls since the comptroller’s office announced the blunder. But he said a number of those were from the office’s own employees, since the attorney general’s office issued its own internal email detailing the breach and suggesting steps to prevent identity theft, after Combs’ announcement.
“It certainly has not been a groundswell of calls,” Strickland said. “But I wouldn’t think our office would be the first call people make since they were given a hotline number.”
The comptroller’s office also began mailing letters to those affected on Wednesday, at a cost of $1.2 million, according to DeSilva.
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