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Credit Card Companies Watchful after Retailer's Customer Data Breach

Banks and credit card companies scrambled to tell their customers in the United States and overseas to watch for fraudulent activity after TJX Cos., parent of retailers Marshalls and T.J. Maxx, disclosed thefts of customer data from its computer system.

TJX said hackers had broken into a system that handles credit and debit card transactions, as well as checks and merchandise returns for customers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Customer accounts from the U.K. and Ireland may be affected, it said.

TJX officials refused to say how many customers were affected, but The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that more than 40 million cards may be affected.

Spokeswoman Sherry Lang said TJX has identified a "limited number" of credit and debit card holders whose information was stolen from its computer system, adding that the number was "substantially less than millions."

A smaller number of customer names with driver's license information was stolen from the system, she said.

Visa USA said in a statement it has provided the affected accounts to banks that issue its cards so they can take steps to protect consumers. The company said it is assessing all credit card transactions in real time to help banks distinguish fraudulent transactions from legitimate ones.

Bank of America and American Express also said they are monitoring their credit cards for unusual activity. Christine Elliott, a spokeswoman for American Express, said the company has not seen any fraudulent purchases.

Visa and other credit card companies pointed out that consumers are not responsible for fraudulent purchases.

Lang said the company believes the breach happened in May but involves credit card information dating back to 2003. The break-in was discovered in mid-December but was kept confidential until Wednesday at the request of law enforcement officials.

TJX has not been informed of any fraudulent purchases at this point, Lang said. The company posted advice on checking credit records on its Web site. The company said it has hired General Dynamics Corp. and IBM Corp. to upgrade its security system.

Mike Cook, a co-founder of ID Analytics, a San Diego-based company that detects and prevents identity fraud, said only a small percentage of accounts involved in a data breach end up misused.

"If you are a consumer and you're part of the TJX breach, you are hoping it's 10 million people because the chance of your name being misused goes down considerably depending on the size of the data breach," Cook said.

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