Between November and March, the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs received three times the normal number of calls to its toll-free line, as South Carolina taxpayers dealt with the hacking of their tax returns.
"The majority of calls were related to, 'What can I do to protect myself?'" said administrator Carri Grube Lybarker.
The agency -- already laboring under layoffs caused by the Great Recession -- handled 33,000 phone calls during the five-month period, with staff assisting those who called for nearly 84,000 minutes, Consumer Affairs said in a report released Monday.
More than a third of the calls -- 11,500 -- came in January, as taxpayers began receiving letters from the S.C. Department of Revenue notifying them that their tax data had been compromised, Grube Lybarker said.
"This is completely unprecedented," she said.
Last fall, hackers stole financial information belonging to 6.4 million consumers, their dependents and businesses from the state Revenue Department.
"It's a lot of information to take in," she said, adding that many of those calling her agency wanted help understanding notification letters from the state and to ensure they were taking the right steps to protect themselves.
Before the breach, Consumer Affairs averaged 2,000 calls a month with 3,500 staff minutes spent assisting consumers. But between January and March, the department received 1,000 more calls than in its entire 2011 calendar year.
The number of calls is starting to taper off, Grube Lybarker said, but the agency still is averaging about twice its normal rate of calls for assistance.
The tax data breach brought a greater awareness to the public that the state agency exists to handle consumer complaints, she said. Some taxpayers who called for help with the data breach also ended up filing other complaints, she said.
At its peak in early 2009, Consumer Affairs had 68 employees and 10 contractors. After budget cuts during the recession, the number of agency employees dipped to 27. The agency now has 33 employees. It handled the increased call volume without hiring temporary staffers, Grube Lybarker said.
"It was all hands on deck to be able to assist customers," she said.
Since last November, the agency also has produced educational materials on how consumers can "freeze" their credit and dealing with identity theft.