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Why Target Will Be Different

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wall Street believes it knows what happens after a company has a big loss of credit card data.

The stock falls. It stays down for a period of months. Then it comes roaring back to new highs.

This happened with TJX (TJX), with Heartland Payments (HPY), even with Global Payments (GPN). Each breach turned out to be a buying opportunity for investors with a multi-year time horizon.

Will it happen to Target (TGT - Get Report)? It should, but recent events might give pause.

For one thing, Target admitted just after Christmas that it lost PIN numbers, not just card numbers and names. These are the four (or more) numbers you use with a debit card to withdraw cash or authorize payments.

Target emphasizes that the PINs it lost were encrypted, that they weren't stored on its computers, but the fact is, this is a materially more-serious breach than those that came before.

For other industry players, who may have thought the worst of the baddies were rounded up last year, this is disquieting. Unless recent arrests on Spain lead to the people who got Target, it means the perps here are still at large, and the loss of PINs indicates they're capable of far greater mischief than their predecessors.

Worse, the loss of PIN numbers could indicate the possibility that someone inside Target's card processing shop may be involved here. That turned out not to be the case in past instances.

Second, Target now faces problems with gift cards sold during the holidays. Even if just 1 in every 1,000 such cards had problems, as the company claims, there are many such cards out there, and they represent a large, growing portion of Christmas sales for large merchants.

A loss of confidence in gift cards could impact the entire retail sector, not just Target.

So far, Target shareholders haven't suffered as those involved in past breaches suffered. As trading opened for the year, the shares are trading higher than where they were when the breach was revealed on December 19. Those looking for a quick move down in Target got coal in their stockings.

But with Congress, state attorneys general, and the plaintiffs' bar now swinging into action against Target over the breach, this story may not be over yet.

Every pattern is made to be broken, and the pattern in retail data breaches is that victims (companies) can be counted on to do well in the months and years after the breach. Target has been supported lately by analysts who see past patterns as prologue, but there are also material differences between this event and those of the past that could trip the stock up.

Most suits like the class actions recently filed over the Target breach go nowhere, but the Carnival case indicates immunity from class actions may be threatened if willful negligence can be proven against the suit's target.

Was that the case here? There could still be a flutter or two in the market for Target stock before we know the answer.

Both bulls and bears, in other words, are still waiting on news.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of GPN.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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