01/25/2013 12:19 EST | Updated 03/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Federal government offers free credit protection to privacy breach victims

OTTAWA - The federal government is offering free credit and identify-theft protection to more than half a million people whose private data was on a hard drive that disappeared from a government office.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada said Friday it has made arrangements with the Equifax credit bureau to provide credit and identity protection services to those affected for a period of up to six years.

A hard drive containing personal information on approximately 583,000 individuals who were Canada Student Loans clients from 2000 to 2006 went missing from a department office in Gatineau, Que.

The department said there's no evidence that the information was stolen or has been used for fraudulent purposes.

"I want to reassure Canadians that we are serious about protecting their personal information," Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said in a release.

"That is why we will provide potentially affected individuals with credit protection at no cost, which will flag their credit files and help detect any potential compromise of their personal information."

Those whose information was on the drive should contact the department call centre at 1-866-885-1866 for callers within North America. Those outside of North America can call 1-416-572-1113 and dial 0 to reverse long-distance charges.

Callers with a hearing or speech impairment can call 1-800-263-5883.

Those affected will have to agree that their information can be given to Equifax.

The department said the credit bureau will protect credit files with notations that information may have been exposed and alert messages will be placed on credit files.

"This notation will assist in preventing any misuse of personal information," the department said. "The notation will stay on credit files for a period of six years unless clients choose to have it removed.

"This flag will alert credit granters that data may have been compromised, and lenders will then take further steps to verify the person's identity before granting credit."

Human Resources said it has tightened its security in response to the disappearance of the hard drive.

"Portable hard drives are no longer permitted. Unapproved USB keys are not to be connected to the network."