Major financial institutions spend millions of dollars protecting private information from falling into the wrong hands.
But even with all the high-tech gadgetry and sophisticated computer firewalls, sometimes they miss the simplest safeguards — like closing the blinds.
Take the Bank of America branch office on the high pedestrian and vehicle traffic corner of Second Avenue S and Third Street in downtown St. Petersburg.
Since the branch opened about three weeks ago, passersby have been able to look through the giant street-level windows and read the computer screens of employees as they speak to customers about their accounts.
When I first noticed the problem, I walked in and spoke to a branch manager, telling him I was the consumer reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and that they might want to do something to protect customer information.
He told me that they do have blinds and screen covers to prevent people from seeing the computer screens. He reached inside a cabinet and pulled out one of the screen covers for me to see.
Great! I thought. But if you're going to keep the screen covers in a cabinet and the blinds wide open, might as well hand thieves the keys to the vault, too.
The most troubling part of all of this is this isn't Old Pop's Check Cashing Store. This is Bank of America.
By late afternoon that day, the blinds were pulled. Problem solved.
Then, a few days later, my colleague Jeff Harrington noticed the blinds open at a corner cubicle with an employee at the desk talking to a couple who appeared to be customers. The computer screen was visible, and Harrington noted that someone could easily snap a camera phone photo of the screen.
Several days this week, it was the same story. Blinds open. Employee at the computer. Screen visible. Customer sitting on the opposite side of the desk.
A couple outside the bank window was taking pictures of the grand opening promotions. It highlighted how easy it would be for someone with criminal intentions to snap a picture of the computer screen.
"Certainly, we encourage all businesses to safeguard customer information in accordance with federal law," said Karen Nalven, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau of West Florida Inc. in Clearwater.
Nalven said the Federal Trade Commission issued safeguard rules to financial institutions that require them "to put something in place to protect this information." How about closing the blinds, using the screen covers or turning the screens away from the windows?
By Friday afternoon, the blinds were down. Christina Beyer Toth, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, said in a statement responding to this article that the bank makes customer privacy and information security a top priority, and the St. Petersburg branch had addressed the issue.
"At all times," Toth wrote, "when customer information is on computer screens in our banking center lobbies, the information is only visible to the Bank of America associate and the customer who is conducting business."
At least now it is.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find The Consumer's Edge on Facebook.