By: Mark Fitzgerald
In what is believed to be the newspaper industry’s first incident of computer hacking directed at subscriber credit-card numbers, a server used for a special online subscription renewal promotion at The Greenville (S.C.) News was compromised, the Gannett Co. Inc.-owned paper said.
Credit card numbers of 170 subscribers were stored on the server, but none have reported any unauthorized charges or other problems in the first week after the newspaper discovered a suspicious software program on the machine, Publisher Steven R. Brandt said last week. The compromised server used for the special promotion, he added, was different from those the News uses for its normal subscription and advertising credit-card transactions. Brandt said the paper had not determined who placed the unauthorized program on the server drive, which was shipped to a Gannett technical center in Maryland for examination.
Affected subscribers were notified personally of the breach, and the newspaper published two stories about the incident — but credit card use by News subscribers, classified advertisers, and others has apparently not been slowed. “I think readers fortunately took my quotes [in the articles] at face value when I assured them that this [subscription renewal program] was isolated, and that all other systems were secure beyond our [Internet] firewall,” Brandt said.
While security is a constant concern for newspapers which take credit-card transactions online, the News incident is apparently the first actual breach, said John Murray, vice president for circulation at the Newspaper Association of America, Vienna, Va.
Newspapers like credit-card subscriptions because experience shows these subscribers have far lower rates of “churn” — the starting and canceling of home delivery — than subscribers who must write a check at renewal time. While newspapers generally have been slow to begin taking subscriptions online with credit-card pay systems, that is changing, Murray said. “There’s been enough success out there, enough papers where more than 5% of subscriptions come from online,” he said. “Consumers are beginning to expect that type of service, to be able to do any type of transaction in real time.”