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Data Thieves Beware

Every day Hardee’s franchisee Todd Pahl is on the lookout for a predator he  can’t see.
It’s not lurking in the crevices along the baseboard or slinking just beyond  the range of cameras. This danger hides behind the infinite 0’s and 1’s in the  computers that no modern company can do without. The franchisee industry, especially restaurants, has become one of the  favorite targets of data thieves. Tight budgets that leave little money for operators to get expert help,  inadequate Internet security training from the corporate leadership of chains,  and restaurateur hubris have attracted criminals to the industry. They snoop out  passwords and get into systems through viruses, Trojan horses and programs that  copy keyboard strokes. The result: millions in fees paid by operators to credit- card companies,  billions stolen from consumers and the loss of trust among restaurant  customers. “We’re always monitoring our computer security because, unlike other  problems, we can’t see this,” said Pahl, chief financial officer of By The  Rockies, which also franchises Carl’s Jr. restaurants. The company has more than  20 stores in the Atlanta area. Data thieves have trained their sights on restaurateurs because of flimsy  firewalls and a propensity by operators to put “back office” computers with  credit-  and debit-card information on the same servers as the desktops used to  surf Facebook and get reality-TV updates. That has become costly. About 44 percent of credit- card compromises  originate within the food service industry, according to Trustwave, which helps  companies to secure information and meet compliance standards. The thieves sell the financial information in huge files to third parties,  who then distribute the files to individuals, who run up bills as much as they  can before a cardholder or a bank notices and closes an account. When that happens, operators pay millions in fees to credit-card companies  for the money they have to pay consumers whose financial information is hacked,  cybersecurity experts said. And everybody is getting hit — from independent restaurants run by mom and  pop operators to franchisees of big chains such as Subway, Firehouse Subs and  Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The most recent victim, Athens, Ga.-based chicken chain Zaxby’s, said in  January it found malware with suspicious files on computers in more than 100 of  its stores — most of them franchised.