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Customers of HFC Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC, are threatening legal action after an "operator error" exposed personal information in emails from the bank.

The bank emailed 2,600 of its Marbles credit card customers with a message marked "Urgent", asking them to contact the bank within 24 hours. But the sender somehow included the entire distribution list in the outgoing mail.

According to the FT, an already bad situation was made worse because automated replies from some addresses also went to the whole distribution list, revealing phone numbers and details of holiday dates.

The bank has admitted the blunder breaches data protection law, and has credited the accounts of those affected with £50. But the BBC reports that customers are still considering legal action.

One customer, Brad Green, has set up a forum for fellow mailees to share their views. He describes the error as "a catastrophic breach of data protection" and believes there is a strong case against the bank.

HFC has contacted the Information Commission (IC) to report the breach of the data protection act. The IC says that it is taking no action on this occasion.

Legal issues aside, this incident is still eyebrow-raising because of the way the bank is contacting its customers.

In this case, the message asked customers to phone a helpline number rather than reply by mail. But it sets up an interaction between bank and customer which can easily be exploited - setting up a phony helpline number is not difficult, after all. If customers expect to be contacted by email, when a phishing scam arrives in their inbox, they'll be more likely to treat it as genuine correspondence.

HFC says it has used email to reach customers for years, and that no problems have arisen until now. It also advises customers not to divulge account information over the internet. ®

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