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Heartland Payment Systems - a payments processor that serves more than 250,000 US businesses - warned consumers Tuesday that their card data may have been compromised following a security breach of the company's payment system.

The Princeton, New Jersey firm said forensic investigators discovered malicious software on its computer network last week. Executives urged cardholders to closely examine their monthly credit and debit card statements and report any unauthorized charges to the issuers.

"Heartland apologizes for any inconvenience this situation has caused," Heartland President and CFO Robert H.B. Baldwin Jr. said in a statement. "Heartland is deeply committed to maintaining the security of cardholder data, and we will continue doing everything reasonably possible to achieve this objective."

Heartland called in auditors after people at Visa and MasterCard reported "suspicious activity surrounding processed card transactions." The company's statement provided few details about the breach, such as how long it lasted, what the malicious software did, or how it was able to penetrate the company's defenses. Baldwin told Bank Info Security the perpetrators "were grabbing numbers with sniffer malware as it went over our processing platform. Unfortunately, we are confident that card holder names and numbers were exposed."

The company has stressed that no merchant data, cardholder Social Security numbers, unencrypted personal identification numbers, addresses, or phone numbers were exposed during the breach.

The breach at Heartland is only the latest compromise of a major card handler that allows criminals wholesale access to cardholder data. Two years ago, TJX Companies, the mammoth retailer that operates TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and other US outlets, suffered a major security breach that exposed data for at least 94 million accounts. The company later fessed up that substandard security for its wireless networks allowed thieves entry into its network, where they remained for many months until their trespass was discovered.

More recently, online payments processor CheckFree lost control of its domain names in December in an attack that sent customers to servers run by a notorious crime gang believed to be based in Eastern Europe. The company has since warned more than 5 million people they may have been affected.

According to Bank Info Security, Heartland is the sixth-biggest payments processor in the US and handles 100 million transaction per month. The company said it is working with investigators from the US Secret Service. It has also set up a website called www.2008breach.com to provide additional information to affected cardholders. ®

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