PERSONAL FINANCE-Consumers vent frustration and anger at Target data breach

NEW YORK Mon Jan 13, 2014 7:23pm EST

NEW YORK Jan 13 (Reuters) - As a credit card expert, Curtis Arnold expended a lot of personal capital promoting Target Corp's Red Card, the retailer's store-branded debit card, because of its generous rewards.

Arnold, the founder of a card comparison site called cardratings.com, spent a lot of money using the Red Card at Target in the holiday shopping season - as it turned out, during the weeks tens of millions of Target customer credit and debit card data was hacked.

Arnold even went so far as to recommend the card to parents at his children's school. Red Card rewards include 5 percent off purchases, free shipping of products and a 1 percent donation to the customer's school of choice.

A parent who signed up for the card just before the holidays saw Arnold the other day and sarcastically said: "Thanks."

"It has been horrendous," says Arnold, of Little Rock, Arkansas, who has yet to hear from Target directly about the security of his account since the company on Dec. 19 disclosed the theft of data.

On Monday, Target began a major public relations effort to win back customer confidence and it apologized for the unprecedented cyber attack.

"Our top priority is taking care of you and helping you feel confident about shopping at Target, and it is our responsibility to protect your information when you shop with us," Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel said in a full-page letter published in newspapers.

Arnold says he cannot reach Target's customer service. He says he finds Target's website too convoluted to navigate for more information about the breach when he is busy with other things.

Hundreds of shoppers who feel the same way have flocked to the company's social media accounts with similar stories - they cannot get through on the phone and they cannot find out things like how to get a new card issued.

On Monday, the company posted an update on its main Facebook page, which reaches more than 22 million followers, offering one year of free daily credit monitoring, plus a free credit report.

Target says it's taking an average of eight seconds to answer credit monitoring requests. Customers have until April 23 to sign up.

Many people have responded to the Facebook post directly - some are supportive and some are skeptical. "This has to be a scam," wrote one woman.

Target customer service responded to many of those who questioned the offer, saying: "This is a legitimate offer."

Real or not, Pam Kassner is not going to bite. The 51-year-old from Pewaukee, Wisconsin shopped at Target over the holidays using her credit card. She is now monitoring her statements closely.

"I'm scared of links. I won't put my Social Security number in," she says. "They try to help you, but they're asking for more information."

Kassner has not stopped shopping at Target, where she typically goes once a month, but the last time she visited, she paid in cash. "I was about to take out my credit card, and then I thought, aahh, I'm not comfortable," Kassner says.

For other consumers, however, the situation is not so much about blaming the retailer, but assessing the general security threat and how companies deal with a crisis.

"Every company has had some sort of a breach," says John Nersesian, managing of wealth management services at Nuveen Investments, based in Chicago. "The questions is, can we be smarter as consumers? And how does a company handle it once they've been made aware of a breach?"

A lack of communication is what Sheri Cullens, 46, faced when her government-issued debit card was compromised after she bought prescription medicine at Target in late December. It was unclear whether or not her card was affected by the reported breach of Target's networks.

Cullens, a single mom from Palm Harbor, Florida who uses the card to receive child support, says she had $600 stolen from her account just as her rent was due.

Nobody at Target contacted her to tell her the card had been compromised, or answered her calls and emails once she found out. Cullens has since worked out the issue with Florida state officials, but she said she would not shop at Target again.

On consumer issues, lack of communication is often a key pain point, says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director U.S. PIRG, an advocacy group for consumers.

"Consumers are frustrated when a company doesn't do a good job either protecting their info or informing them of any problems," he says.

But with its letter to customers, Target is trying to address their concerns.

"I know this breach has had a real impact on you, creating a great deal of confusion and frustration," it said.

Consumers also do not know where to turn when they are dissatisfied, according to Mierzwinski, who says very few know to contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Many simply rely on the fraud protection provided by their credit card issuers - filling out a form and have them removed. They play the game of averages, hoping thieves will not make their way through all the millions of account numbers stolen.

Miami lawyer Jordan Keusch, 44, is among those who is resigned to the situation.

"I accept it as part of modern commerce, as horrible as that is. I don't like it, but there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it."

- The CFPB has information on identity theft protection services (), plus forms to submit questions and complaints.

- The FTC has a website section devoted to consumer safety from identity theft ().

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