How to protect yourself from identity theft after a data breach

Tips & Advice

How does that information get collected in the first place? We share personal information with companies for multiple reasons simply by going about our day—to pay for takeout at our favorite restaurant, to check into a hotel, or to collect rewards at the local coffee shop. Of course, we use our credit and debit cards too, sometimes as part of an online account that tracks our purchase history. 

In other words, we leave trails of data practically wherever we go these days, and that data is of high value to hackers. Thus, all those breaches we read about. 

Data breaches are a (sad) fact of life 

Whether it’s a major breach that exposes millions of records or one of many other smaller-scale breaches like the thousands that have struck healthcare providers, each one serves as a reminder that data breaches happen regularly and that we could find ourselves affected. Depending on the breach and the kind of information you’ve shared with the business or organization in question, information stolen in a breach could include: 

  • Usernames and passwords 
  • Email addresses 
  • Phone numbers and home addresses 
  • Contact information for friends and family members 
  • Birthdays and Driver’s license numbers 
  • Credit and debit card numbers or bank account details 
  • Purchase history and account activity 
  • Social security numbers 

What do crooks do with that data? Several things. Apart from using it themselves, they may sell that data to other criminals. Either way, this can lead to illicit use of credit and debit cards, draining of bank accounts, claiming tax refunds or medical expenses in the names of the victims, or, in extreme cases, assuming the identity of others altogether.  

Examples of data breaches over the recent years 

In all, data is a kind of currency in of itself because it has the potential to unlock several aspects of victim’s life, each with its own monetary value. It’s no wonder that big breaches like these have made the news over the years, with some of the notables including: 

Facebook – 2019: Two sets of data exposed the records of more than 530 million users, including phone numbers, account names, and Facebook IDs. 

Marriott International (Starwood) – 2018: Half a million guests had names, email and physical mailing addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, dates of birth, and other information about their stays exposed. 

Equifax – 2017: Some 147 million records that included names, addresses, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, and Social Security Numbers were exposed, along with a relatively small subset of 200,000 victims having their credit card information exposed as well. 

As mentioned, these are big breaches with big companies that we likely more than recognize. Yet smaller and mid-sized businesses are targets as well, with some 43% of data breaches involving companies of that size. Likewise, restaurants and retailers have seen their Point-of-Sale (POS) terminals compromised, right on down to neighborhood restaurants. 

Staying secure in light of data breaches 

When a company experiences a data breach, customers need to realize that this could impact their online safety. If your favorite coffee shop’s customer database gets leaked, there’s a chance that your personal or financial information was exposed. However, this doesn’t mean that your online safety is doomed. If you think you were affected by a breach, there are multiple steps you can take to help protect yourself from the potential side effects.  

1. Keep an eye on your bank and credit card accounts 

One of the most effective ways to determine whether someone is fraudulently using one or more of your accounts is to check your statements. If you see any charges that you did not make, report them to your bank or credit card company immediately. They have processes in place to handle fraud. While you’re with them, see if they offer alerts for strange purchases, transactions, or withdrawals. 

2. If you’re a victim, report it to local authorities and to the FTC for assistance.  

File a police report and a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Report. This will help in case someone uses your Social Security number to commit fraud, since it will provide a legal record of the theft. The FTC can also assist by guiding you through the identity theft recovery process as well. Their site offers a step-by-step recovery plan that you can follow and track your progress as you go. 

3. Place a fraud alert 

If you suspect that your data might have been compromised, place a fraud alert on your credit. This not only ensures that any new or recent requests undergo scrutiny, but also allows you to have extra copies of your credit report so you can check for suspicious activity. You can place one fraud alert with any of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) and they will notify the other two. A fraud alert typically lasts for a year, although there are options for extending it as well. 

4. Look into freezing your credit if needed 

Freezing your credit will make it highly difficult for criminals to take out loans or open new accounts in your name, as a freeze halts all requests to pull your credit—even legitimate ones. In this way, it’s a far stronger measure than placing a fraud alert. Note that if you plan to take out a loan, open a new credit card, or other activity that will prompt a credit report, you’ll need to take extra steps to see that through while the freeze is in place. (The organization you’re working with can assist with the specifics.) Unlike the fraud alert, you’ll need to contact each major credit reporting agency to put one in place. Also, a freeze lasts as long as you have it in place. You’ll have to remove it yourself, again with each agency. 

5. Update your passwords 

Ensure that your passwords are strong and unique. Many people utilize the same password or variations of it across all their accounts. Therefore, be sure to diversify your passcodes to ensure hackers cannot obtain access to all your accounts at once, should one password be compromised. You can also employ a password manager to keep track of your credentials, such as one you’ll find in comprehensive online protection software. 

6. Consider using identity theft protection 

A solution such as this will help you to monitor your accounts and alert you of any suspicious activity. Specifically, our own Identity Protection Service will monitor several types of personally identifiable information, alert you of potentially stolen personal info, and offer guided help to neutralize the threat. Also, it can help you steer clear of some types of theft with preventative guidance that can help keep theft from happening in the first place. With this set up on your computers and smartphone you can stay in the know and address issues immediately. 

7. Use online protection software, and expand your security toolbox 

To use your credit card safely online to make purchases, add both a VPN and password manager into your toolbox of security solutions. A VPN keeps your shopping experience private, while a password manager helps you keep track of and protect all your online accounts. Again, you’ll find a VPN as part of comprehensive online protection software. 

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