Target Data Security Breach: It’s Lawsuit Time!

by Jenny Warfield, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

On December 19th, 2013, Target announced that it fell victim to the second-largest security attack in US retail history. While initial reports showed the hack compromised only the credit and debit card information (including PIN numbers and CVV codes) of 40 million customers, recent findings revealed that the names, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and email addresses of 70 million shoppers between November 27 to December 15 had also been stolen.

As history has proved time and again, massive data security breaches lead to lawsuits. When Heartland Payment Systems (a payment card processing service for small and mid-sized businesses) had its information on 130 million credit and debit card holders exposed in a 2009 cyber-attack, it faced lawsuits by banks and credit card companies for the costs of replacing cards, extending branch hours, and refunding consumers for fraudulent transactions. These lawsuits have so far cost the company $140 million in settlements (with litigation ongoing). Similarly, when TJX Company (parent of T.J. Maxx) had its accounts hacked in 2007, it cost the company $256 million in settlements.

Target currently faces at least 15 lawsuits in state and federal court seeking class action status, and several other lawsuits by individuals across the country. Common themes by the claimants are that 1) Target failed to properly secure customer data (more specifically, that Target did not abide by Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council Data Security Standards “PCI DSS”); 2) Target failed to promptly notify customers of the security breach in violation of state notification statutes, preventing customers from taking steps to protect against fraud; 3) Target violated the Federal Stored Communications Act; 4) and Target breached its implied contracts with its customers.

A quick review of past data breach cases reveals that these plaintiffs face an uphill battle, especially in the class-action context. While financial institutions and credit card companies can point to pecuniary damages in the form of costs associated with card replacements and customer refunds for fraudulent transactions (as in the TJX and Heartland cases), the damages suffered by plaintiffs in these cases are usually speculative. Not only are customers almost always refunded for transactions they did not make, it is unclear how to value the loss of information like home addresses and phone numbers in the absence of evidence that such information has been used to the customer’s detriment. As a result, almost all of the class action suits brought against companies in cyber-attacks have failed.

However, the causes of the cyber-attack on Target are still unclear, and it may be too early to speculate on Target’s liability. Target is currently being investigated by the DOJ (and potentially the FTC) for its role in the data breach while also conducting its own investigation in partnership with the U.S. Secret Service. In any event, affected customers should take advantage of Target’s year-long free credit monitoring while waiting for more facts to unfold.