Thursday, February 23, 2006

Who Got Hurt?

A friend of mine is a writer with a major national publication. We keep in regular contact, and every so often I’ll try to interest him in a story. He’s an excellent scribe and has specific criteria for following up on the leads I give him. One question he often asks is, “Who got hurt?”

That question came up a while ago when we were on the topic of privacy protection. It’s a big issue, I argued, and businesses that don’t pay attention to data protection, that fail to gain consumer trust, will suffer. I pointed out research that showed trusted companies turn customers into regular customers, and regular customers into more profitable customers.

“Who got hurt?” he asked.

I continued with my high falutin’ concepts and cited more studies.

“Who got hurt?” he asked again, elaborating to explain that credit fraud is nothing new, but that if I could point to a situation where mismanagement of personal information resulted in someone getting hurt, physically, he’d take a closer look at my idea.

Today I found that story. It’s a sad case from this past weekend in which a fugitive from California managed to elude detection during a background check to gain employment at a car dealership. He then used his position as a car salesman to access customer files and track down a female customer at her home, where he raped her at gunpoint.

There are so many ways to analyze what went wrong here, and no easy answers. I’ll start with the breakdown of a system that could have – should have – identified the perpetrator as a fugitive. What happened next would be pure speculation, and, while credit and personal information in an atmosphere such as an auto dealership may be treated cavalierly, a salesman in that situation must have access to privileged information in order to help the customer complete a transaction. Information – personal information – is essential to doing business these days.

We rely on certain systems to filter out and create distance between us and untrustworthy individuals. We trust that states and businesses follow the rules and do their best to prevent worst case scenarios. It doesn’t always work that way.

Locally, a waiter in a Holden, Mass diner was arrested after skimming patrons’ credit cards and using the information to charge over $100,000 before getting caught. (Sorry…reports are currently only available online via subscription sites.). The thief worked at the establishment only three weeks before quitting, apparently figuring he’d swiped enough info to live richly at the expense of others.

Analysis: People are getting hurt, physically and financially. Consumer trust is being assaulted from all sides. There’s a real need to take action to prevent these sorts of things from happening. The answers aren’t easy, but they are necessary. Open communications with the public about these issues and how you are working to protect them and their trust has to be a part of your communications strategy.

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