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Child support data may be at risk

L.A. County agency tells 243,000 clients that three missing laptops may contain personal info.

March 30, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

In the weeks after three laptops went missing from a Los Angeles County Child Support Services office, officials sent letters to 243,000 clients in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, warning that their personal information -- including Social Security numbers -- might be at risk.

The computers were stored at the secured Child Support Services Department headquarters in the City of Commerce but went missing sometime during the weekend of Feb. 24, officials said. One of the laptops, which sat in a docking station on an employee's desk, was ordinarily used by a staffer to access client data in the department's regional computer system.

The agency locates divorced parents who are delinquent in providing financial support to their children. It also establishes paternity and collects and distributes child support payments to families.

An investigation by child support officials found that the missing computers probably contained fewer than 1,000 records. But the department notified all 243,000 people potentially affected by the breach so they could take precautions to protect their private information.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating the incident as an apparent theft.

"We really had questions about whether we should send the letter, to be honest," said department director Philip Browning. "The likelihood of somebody being able to use that information for identity theft is so remote, it seems like an abundance of caution."

The potentially compromised last names and Social Security numbers of an estimated 275 Los Angeles County child support clients, plus 600 from Orange and San Diego counties, were the most serious concerns, Browning said.

Of the 243,000, about 130,500 Social Security numbers -- most without names attached -- could be compromised, said Al Brusewitz, the county's chief information security officer. About 12,000 individuals' names and addresses could be made available, and more than 101,000 child support case numbers could be affected.

Agency officials stressed that sensitive information is almost always saved to the department server rather than on computer hard drives.

"There is a very strong possibility that there was no personal information of any of our paid participants in the laptops," said department special assistant Lisa Garrett.

The department has received some calls from people seeking more information about the apparent theft and has trained call center employees to field such inquiries, Browning said.

Jeff La Marca, 48, of Rancho Santa Margarita, pays child support and received a letter March 23 warning him to check his credit report and monitor his financial accounts as a safety measure after the security breach. "I was absolutely outraged," said La Marca, who runs a university foreign language lab. "It's a good indicator as to how grossly irresponsible" the department is.

The department drafted a letter Feb. 27 and sent it to individuals at greatest risk of having their information released beginning the first week of March, Garrett said. Others received letters later in the month.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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