When you open a bank or credit union account, pay with a debit or credit card, sign up for cable or even share something on social media, every bit of that information is stored somewhere, along with bits of information from millions of others. All those names, addresses, and account numbers can create a tempting target for a data compromise, or breach.
If it feels like you hear about a data breach nearly every time you see the news, you’re not imagining it. Roughly 10.5 billion records have been breached since 2005, according to a tracker created by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
What is a data breach?
A data breach occurs when someone gets access to confidential or protected information without authorization. Criminals try to break into large corporate databases to take information and use it, for example, to charge items to other people’s credit cards.
That’s a data breach defined, but how does one affect you when it happens?
The impact depends on the type of information that hackers access during the data breach. This information may include usernames, passwords, credit-card numbers, mortgage details, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and even other bits and bytes of information that they can assemble. Hackers can use this data to buy goods and services by creating fraudulent accounts in your name (also called identity theft) and making charges to your credit cards and may even collect your tax refund before you file. Data breaches cost individuals and businesses huge amounts of money and can be agonizing for people who must restore their credit after accounts are fraudulently opened under their name.
How can I protect myself from a data compromise?
Since your personal information is stored with a lot of different organizations, there isn’t a way to provide a 100% guarantee that your information will be protected from a cyber breach. However, you can still stay vigilant and take these steps to guard against cyber and identity theft.
- Check your bank and other financial statements at least monthly for unauthorized transactions.
- Shred medical records, financial statements, and other sensitive data.
- Change PINs, usernames, and passwords regularly. You may want to make it a recurring task on your calendar, so you don’t forget.
- Don’t store your credit-card data with online retailers. A faster checkout isn’t worth it.
- Be careful about opening email and clicking on enclosed links. The sender could be attempting to steal your data. Hackers are very skilled at imitating real companies, so even if the email is from a company you know, go to their web site to communicate with them. That way, you don’t risk giving data to someone trying to imitate a financial services firm.
- Check your credit report, available from credit-ratings agencies Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. You are entitled to one free check yearly.
If you believe your data has been breached, don’t be intimidated. It may be tempting to ignore the problem, but the earlier you act, the less likely you are to lose significant amounts of money, or have your credit damaged by thieves who open accounts in your name.
Start by learning what kind of information has been stolen. Sometimes, hackers get only account usernames, information you can easily change to defend yourself.
If your data has been breached:
- Contact your financial services providers immediately if you spot transactions that don’t belong to you so that you can cancel the cards.
- Check out IdentityTheft.gov, a federal government web site, to identify any steps you should take to respond to the breach.
- Consider putting a credit freeze or fraud warning on your account. A freeze lets you restrict access to your credit report, and you will have to lift it if you want to allow anyone, including a potential landlord or employer, to check your credit. With a fraud alert, people can still access your credit report but need to take steps to verify your identity first. For more on these options, read this guide from the Federal Trade Commission.
By keeping an eye on your data, you may be able to head off significant problems and avoid losing sleep the next time you hear about a data