As if a devastating natural disaster was not disruptive enough to people’s safety, homes, and finances, a new threat has emerged – one that was caused by the very people tasked with supporting the victims of natural disasters and other emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shared documents with a third-party contractor that contained highly sensitive information, some of which was a direct violation of current regulations for FEMA to share.
The current industry term for this kind of data breach event is an accidental overexposure, meaning no harmful intent was behind it and there is no indication of damage from the information falling into the wrong hands. Still, the FEMA data breach gave the potential for someone who was not unauthorized to access the information and use it for identity theft and fraud.
In this case, an internal audit found that FEMA’s documents included things like the victims’ names, addresses, and the names of their financial institutions. Some information also included victims’ electronic transfer numbers for moving funds and their bank transit numbers. Sharing this information seems to have been an oversight on FEMA’s part, and a statement about the incident said that FEMA is taking aggressive action to correct the error.
The name of the contractor in this incident has been redacted, but it is a company with direct ties to victim services. The company helps disaster victims find hotel accommodations that are covered under FEMA funding and therefore did need certain pieces of personally identifiable information on the victims it is helping. Impacted victims from the FEMA data breach include those from Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, as well as the California wildfires in 2017.
Any time consumers’ personally identifiable information is exposed, compromised or attacked, the likelihood of identity theft-related crimes can go up. The Identity Theft Resource Center has partnered with Futurion to create Breach Clarity, an interactive tool that assigns a risk score to different data breach events. It also outlines in easy-to-understand terms the actionable steps that experts recommend for every breach, from something as simple as changing your password to more involved security measures like a credit freeze.