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Financial data lost by Bank of America

Error affects 1.2m accounts of federal workers

Bank of America Corp. has lost tapes containing personal financial information for 1.2 million accounts of federal employees, including US senators and members of the Defense Department.

The tapes contained personal information, including Social Security numbers, addresses, and account numbers for employees in several government agencies. The lost information, which the bank was transporting to a backup data center, could make those customers vulnerable to identity theft.

Bank of America first discovered in December that the tapes had been lost and alerted the Secret Service, but it did not make the loss public until yesterday. A Bank of America spokeswoman, Alexandra Trower, said the bank waited to contact customers until federal law-enforcement authorities concluded their investigation and gave the bank permission.

According to a spokesman for the Defense Department, 900,000 of the customers were defense employees.

''This was a large incident," Bryan Whitman told Reuters.

Trower said the bank and law enforcement have concluded that the tapes were probably lost. The bank apologized in a public statement yesterday.

''This was an accident that happened in shipping," Trower said. ''There is absolutely no indication that any information has been accessed."

The lost data tapes included the personal information of US Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, his spokeswoman said yesterday.

''There were some senators' Visa credit card accounts involved," the spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, said. ''We don't know how many, but he was one of them."

The Bank of America disclosure came on the heels of a similar disclosure by ChoicePoint Inc., a data warehouser in Georgia, which said as many as 140,000 customers may have had their personal information compromised.

Leahy has called for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into whether to more heavily regulate companies that deal in personal financial data. He released a statement yesterday saying he hopes the Bank of America incident will persuade Congress to pay more attention to what he called the ''rapid erosion of privacy rights" as consumers' financial information is collected and sold.

The lost data on the tapes were part of a program called SmartPay administered by Bank of America and other banks, which works similarly to corporate credit cards.

Bank of America, which acquired FleetBoston Financial Corp. for $48 billion last year, said it is cooperating fully with federal law enforcement officials. In a statement, a top executive, Barbara Desoer, said the bank ''deeply regrets" the incident.

''The privacy of customer information receives the highest priority at Bank of America, and we take our responsibilities for safeguarding it very seriously," said Desoer, who is in charge of technology, service, and fulfillment at Bank of America.

US Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said he was told by the Senate Rules Committee that the data backup tapes were probably stolen off a commercial plane by baggage handlers in December. But Trower, the Bank of America spokeswoman, said the bank and law-enforcement officials believe that the tapes were lost. Bank of America is monitoring the accounts to make sure the financial data are not abused, and it alerted affected account holders in a letter yesterday.

She also said it is common industry practice for banks to ship backup tapes containing customers' information, but that Bank of America may reevaluate how it handles such shipments in the future.

Consumers Union, one of the nation's leading consumer-activist groups, called on lawmakers yesterday to allow customers more access to their private financial information so that they can freeze their accounts.

''Once again, consumers have been put at risk of identity theft because sensitive customer information held by a financial institution has been compromised," Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney for Consumers Union, said in a statement. ''This is another reminder of how vulnerable consumers are to having their personal and financial information fall into the wrong hands."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com. Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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