Whole Foods Investigating Payment Card Data Breach

A month after Amazon completed its acquisition of Whole Foods, a potential data breach investigation is underway.

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Grocery retailer Whole Foods Market announced on Sept. 28 that it was investigating a possible data breach, involving unauthorized access to payment card information. The potential breach is limited to table-service restaurants and taprooms within a limited number of Whole Foods stores and does not impact the company's primary checkout system used by in-store shoppers. 

"While most Whole Foods Market stores do not have these taprooms and restaurants, Whole Foods Market encourages its customers to closely monitor their payment card statements and report any unauthorized charges to the issuing bank," Whole Foods stated.

Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon in a $13.7 billion deal that closed on Aug. 28. Whole Foods noted in its investigation disclosure that the Amazon.com systems do not connect to the systems at Whole Foods Market and transactions on Amazon.com have not been impacted.

The Whole Foods breach investigation disclosure provides no details about when the unauthorized access was first detected or how many consumers are potentially impacted. The timing of the breach is a question that concerns Marcus Carey, CEO and founder of security firm Threatcare.

"This announcement comes out only a month after the Amazon acquisition," Carey told eWEEK. "If this breach were public before the acquisition it would have affected the share price of Whole Foods and would have complicated the deal."

Whole Foods is not the first, and likely won't be the last, grocery chain to be targeted by cyber-attackers. In 2014, 180 SuperValu stores and affiliates were impacted by a payment card breach. Scott Petry, Co-Founder and CEO of Authentic8, commented that retail is an attractive target for hackers because it is a source for aggregated credit card data.

"Retail has the data, runs obscure POS (Point of Sale) systems built on legacy software, and probably doesn't have the internal security controls defined specifically for that environment," Petry told eWEEK. "Applying standard corporate IT methodologies to financial transaction systems doesn't work."

Retail payment systems are supposed to be compliant with the PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) which aims to minimize the risk of a data breach. Verizon's 2017 Payment Security Report, which was released on Aug.31, found that over 11 years of forensic breach investigations, 89 percent of breached companies were never compliant, while 11 percent were PCI compliant at one point, but not at the time of the breach.

Brian Vecci, Technical Evangelist at Varonis commented that there is a missing link between passing a PCI-DSS audit and actually being secure. In his view, retailers need to take steps beyond being just good enough to pass an audit, check a box, and move on. 

"This is just the latest attack in a long string of incidents involving payment information systems ," Vecci told eWEEK. "It's a target that continues to be an issue and highly sought after by attackers on the hunt for an easy financial fix from stolen credit card information."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.