PITTSFIELD -- Credit and debit card breaches as significant as the one that Target announced on Thursday have the potential to wreak havoc on a consumer's personal information.

But representatives of three Berkshire financial institutions said consumers can protect themselves if they take the proper steps.

"This one, because of the nature of the information that appears to be compromised, I would say it's potentially quite serious," said John L. Bissell, the executive vice president of the Greylock Federal Credit Union.

Bissell said consumers should take a "measured approach" in responding to this situation, which includes notifying their financial institution of their concerns and checking their bank and credit card statements.

"Their financial institution will be able to respond to them," Bissell said. "There's a need for a thoughtful measures approach. There's no need to panic."

Tina Busch, the corporate security officer at Berkshire Bank, said consumers should monitor their bank or credit card statements closely, and contact their financial institution or credit card company immediately if they spot any unauthorized purchases. Berkshire Bank has posted a notice warning consumers of the data breach on its website, www.berkshirebank.com.

Peter Marchetti, the vice president of branch development at the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, said consumers should remain "vigilant" monitoring their bank and credit card statements for unusual activity, and take steps to shut their cards down if they have to.

"If they suspect their card has been compromised or used at any location they should contact their local bank immediately and request a new card," he said.

Target, one of the country's largest retail chains, announced on Thursday that some 40 million credit and debit card accounts may be affected by a data breach that occurred between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15.

The Minneapolis-based chain said that customers who made purchases with either Target store brand cards or major card brands like MasterCard and VISA in Target's U.S.-based stores are the ones who may have had their accounts exposed. Target operates a store at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough.

The stolen data includes customer names, credit and debit card numbers, card expiration dates, and the embedded code on the magnetic strip on the back of cards, according to The Associated Press.

Marchetti said the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank is taking a "proactive" approach to the situation, and will replace any member's card that has been compromised. He said the bank had received word that 249 members' cards had been compromised as of early Thursday afternoon.

"What we're doing is we have the lists of everyone of our customers expected to be impacted by it," said bank President and CEO Jay Anderson. "We're actually calling each and every one of those people. Obviously, there's a risk having those numbers out there if they fall into the wrong hands."

Several bank employees also have been affected by the situation, "including me and Pete," Anderson added.

Bissell said Greylock, the county's largest credit union, was dealing with members' concerns individually on Thursday afternoon.

"First, it's important for people to know that the breach in question is not due to a compromise at Greylock or other local institution," Bissell said. "It appears that a national retailer, Target, experienced the breach."

In these types of situations, Bissell said Greylock has a team that works with information provided by VISA to determine the best course of action (Greylock does not use MasterCard).

"Sometimes that means a blanket re-issue of all the cards affected; other times it means that we notify the customers who may be affected in order to provide them with a range of options," he said.

"In every instance, we work closely with member/owners who may have a concern to ensure they have in hand a Greylock card that is safe and reliable," Bissell added. "We encourage families and businesses to check their accounts online if they have Internet banking access, and to always contact their financial institution if they have a concern."

Berkshire, the county's largest bank, was in the process of receiving information on affected customers from its vendors on Thursday afternoon, according to Busch. Shutting down member's bank cards is something that Berkshire will consider.

"You can at any time ask for another card just to be on the safe side," Busch said. "The customer needs to understand though that getting a new card takes some time so there will be a time when they won't have a card."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
(413) 496-6224

Protect yourself

For people who shopped at Target's retail stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley offers the following information on how to protect against potential identity theft:

Immediately review and monitor your credit and debit card information for the next 12 to 24 months for any unauthorized activity and monitor your credit reports. If you notice any irregular activity or charges, report them to the issuer of your credit card immediately.

Order a copy of your credit report, and look for unauthorized activity. Look carefully for unexplained activity on your credit report. You are entitled to one free credit report per year.

Call one of the three major credit bureaus and place a one-call fraud alert on your credit report. You only need to call one of the three credit bureaus; the one you contact is required by law to contact the other two credit bureaus. This one-call fraud alert will remain in your credit file for at least 90 days. The fraud alert requires creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or increasing credit limits on your existing accounts.

If there is unexplained activity on your credit report, you may contact your local police department and place an extended fraud alert on your credit report.

Contact the fraud departments of your credit card issuers or bank. You may also wish to request a new account number; you can discuss this option with your credit card company or bank.

If you are a victim of fraud or identity theft. There are many steps you will need to take to protect your identity. To see the AG's Guide on Identity Theft for Victims and Consumers, go to http://www.mass.gov/ago/docs/consumer/id-theft-guide.pdf.

Target has established a toll free customer help line. Callers from the United States may reach the help line at (866) 852-8680. Target has also posted information on its website.

For additional information, consumers may contact the Attorney General's consumer hotline at (617) 727-8400, or view the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft resource, available at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.