NEW YORK — An e-mail sent to the roughly 70 million Target customers who might have been affected by a pre-Christmas data breach is causing panic among those who fear it could be an attempt to victimize them again.
Target says the e-mail, which offers free credit monitoring services to potential victims of the breach, is legitimate. But the company has identified a handful of scammers who are trying to take advantage of the public’s fear and confusion.
Shawn Blakeman, 42, of Raleigh, N.C., received Target’s e-mail, but he did not click on the link it contained ‘‘just in case it was some kind of a website that I could not get out of or had a hidden virus,” he said.
Consumers have been on edge since news of the data breach broke last month. And they have been warned to be on alert for possible follow-up attacks that could come in the form of phishing e-mails, electronic messages designed to implant malicious software on their computers or draw them to websites that prompt them to enter personal information.
So when Target’s e-mail began circulating this week, many recipients questioned its authenticity. The e-mail was especially suspicious to people who say they have not set foot in a Target store in years.
Jim Reid, 60, of Minneapolis said he was a little nervous about clicking on the link in the e-mail and questioned whether it was a good idea to send Target more personal information when they were unable to protect it in the first place.
‘‘There’s too much uncertainty,” Reid said. ‘‘They keep changing what they’re saying about how many people were affected, about what kinds of information were stolen. It’s obvious that they really don’t know.”
According to Target, hackers stole data related to 40 million credit and debit card accounts and also pilfered personal information, including e-mail addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, and names of as many as 70 million customers.
Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said it was those 70 million people that Target contacted by e-mail. And while Target believes the theft of the roughly 40 million debit and credit card numbers only affected cards swiped between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, the 70 million people whose personal information was stolen could have last shopped at a Target store months, or even years, ago.
Consumers are right to be wary of e-mails purportedly sent by Target. Snyder said that in recent weeks the retailer has stopped more than a dozen operations that sought to scam breach victims by way of e-mail, phone calls, or text messages.
Target said all of the letters it is sending to shoppers are posted on the company’s website, with information about what customers need to do to sign up for free credit monitoring.
Snyder confirmed that the information gathered for the free service will not be used for marketing purposes. While shoppers are offered the option of continuing the monitoring service after a year, they will not be automatically re-enrolled in the service or receive a bill.
The retail giant was not the only company to get hit with a data breach over the holidays. Last week, Neiman Marcus said thieves stole some of its customers’ payment information and made unauthorized charges over the holidays. The luxury retailer is also offering its customers free credit monitoring.