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Caterpillar: Stolen computer included workers' financial data

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A computer stolen in early April from a company that provided benefit services to Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE: CAT) contained workers' Social Security numbers and banking information, according to a letter sent to employees.

The Peoria-based heavy-equipment maker waited three weeks to disclose the theft to workers. Caterpillar has declined to say how many of its past or roughly 95,000 current employees are affected, but the letter indicates at least some retirees are among them.

Caterpillar has set up a call center to handle inquiries, spokesman Rusty Dunn said.

The laptop computer was stolen April 5 along with DVD players, televisions and other electronic devices from a repair shop "near Atlanta," according to a copy of the letter obtained Monday by The Associated Press. The company the computer belonged to, benefits contractor SBA Inc. (Nasdaq: SBAC), is based near that city, the letter states.

Caterpillar was notified "not too long" after the theft, Dunn said, declining to be more specific.

The company doesn't believe any personal data, which also included names and addresses, has been accessed or used.

"Based on our discussions with law enforcement authorities, who are aggressively investigating this crime, we believe this was part of a random theft of electronic goods," the unsigned letter states.

The president of the United Auto Workers Local 974 in Peoria said Monday that Caterpillar had only told the union to refer workers to the call center.

"They're not volunteering any information to us at all," Dave Chapman said. "We're getting a lot of calls over here."

A spokesman for a Washington, D.C.-based consumer-advocacy group criticized Caterpillar for waiting three weeks to tell employees about the stolen data, saying the delay denied them the chance to monitor their finances for signs of trouble.

"It's a dangerous strategy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's a little bit like police knowing that someone has broken into your home and not telling you that it's happened."

Dunn declined to say why the company waited.

"You've got a lot of confidential and security issues at stake with something like this," he said.

Caterpillar said Friday in a news release that the company is "putting in place an enhanced level of protection for this type of personal data." The company is also providing affected employees with a year of free credit monitoring.

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