A week of worry for some Myrtle Beach area residents, businesses over cyber attack

For some Grand Strand residents and businesses, it’s been a week of worry, anger and concern about how much worse news of the cyber-attack at the state revenue department will get.

Grand Strand accountants and banks, keeping a close eye on the evolving news out of Columbia, have been trying to help clients by urging them to watch their accounts for suspicious activity and sign up for the free year of credit monitoring the state is paying for through Experian.

Keith McNeal with Stephen T. Evans accounting firm in Murrells Inlet, who emailed clients and spent hours on the phone with them through the week, said he can’t go anywhere in town without getting questions from residents about what they should do.

“They’re mad. They’re frustrated. They’re unsure,” he said. “They are still very concerned...It’s hitting everywhere, in the convenience store, the gym. These questions come up.”

It’s a natural reaction, experts said, when the data consumers have been trained to protect -- social security numbers, bank accounts, credit and debit card numbers -- have been compromised in what some experts say is the largest ever cyber attack on a state tax department.

“The hair on the back of your neck should stand up,” said James McIlrath, a partner at Myrtle Beach firm Duncan Farmer Munden McIlrath & Cobb who has been communicating with clients all week.

The cyber-attack of the S.C. Department of Revenue, announced by Gov. Nikki Haley a week ago, compromised 3.6 million personal South Carolina tax returns that have been filed since 1998 and officials later said up to 657,000 businesses. The news has sent residents signing up for the state-offered credit monitoring and checking in with banks and accounting offices wondering if there’s anything else they need to do to protect themselves from potential ID theft or fraud.

“We have not had any instances of panic where customers have rushed in to change their accounts or debit cards,” Laurence Bolchoz Jr., president and CEO of Coastal Carolina National Bank, said in an email. “We continue to monitor the developments of the impact of this breach and how it could potentially impact any of our customers and our company.”

Banks and accounting firms are giving concerned clients the same advice: Sign up for the free year of monitoring service and watch their statements for any suspicious activity. Several firms contacted Thursday said they haven’t yet heard of any clients or customers being a victim of ID theft or discovering unauthorized use of their accounts because of the cyber attack.

“Always be vigilant,” said Barbara Marshall, spokeswoman for South Atlantic Bank, which has taken a few questions this week from customers about the hacking. “You’ve got to keep tabs on everything.”

Locals have watched as news of the compromise grew bigger throughout the week, trickled out through several news conferences by Haley in Columbia. Officials said Wednesday that up to 657,000 businesses also were compromised, discovering the breach Tuesday evening after initially saying they didn’t think business records had been exposed.

Several Grand Strand businesses said Thursday they continue to monitor the situation. Businesses could start signing up Thursday for lifetime record monitoring from Experian and can start Friday signing up through Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.

“Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. has been monitoring the situation since it unfolded,” spokeswoman Lei Gainer said in an email. “We continue to be proactive and we are watching our accounts daily. To date, we have not been affected.”

Some businesses that have spent the money to protect their sensitive data through encrypting and other means wonder why the state didn’t do the same, adding that it will cost the state more to fix this than it likely would have to prevent it. The S.C. Department of Revenue now is working to encrypt the data.

“From a personal perspective, we are all very upset,” said Dodd Smith, president of Metglas Inc., who signed himself up for the free credit monitoring Thursday morning but doesn’t think the business is at risk. “We think that government should have the duty to protect us.”

With the personal information out there, residents could become a victim now or years down the road, experts say. In addition to the year of free credit monitoring, the state has offered a lifetime of over-the-phone help on resolving identity theft after it happens.

“People just need to pay attention and keep up with it. They can’t hide their heads in the sand,” McIlrath said. “It’s going to be around forever.”