Watchdog Worries H&R Block Booths in Wal-Mart Could Abet ID Theft

2 min read
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Pittsburgh-When Pittsburgh attorney Robert Chastain walked out of the restroom at the Wal-Mart Superstore in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a few weeks ago, he couldn't believe his eyes. He was staring at a computer screen inside a temporary H&R Block tax booth.

A customer's address, Social Security number, date of birth and other personal data were in plain view of passersby. Sensitive about security and privacy issues because of his work as general counsel and partner at technology services company Ceeva Inc., Chastain said he wanted to find out if IDs were up for grabs at other H&R Block booths. So he had a few student interns visit a half-dozen other Wal-Marts in the region.

Not all the tax booths had customers at the time. And several of the Wal-Marts were leasing space to another large tax preparer, Jackson Hewitt, which was using extensive privacy partitions, making it difficult to snoop without being noticed. But the same privacy breach popped up at an H&R Block booth in Greensburg. At H&R Block, the nation's largest tax preparer, spokeswoman Denise Sposato said she found it "hard to believe" that Chastain or anyone else was able to spy on personal information. In developing the prototype for the Wal-Mart kiosks, which were installed for the first time this tax season, H&R Block's compliance officer "extensively" evaluated privacy issues, Sposato said.

For its part, Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, left any action up to H&R Block.

Meanwhile, Chastain has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, contacted consumer groups and is trying to warn anyone who will listen. Identity theft, the fastest growing white-collar crime in America, claimed 10 million victims in 2002, according to the FTC. -Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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