Life can turn upside down in an instant when you are the victim of a data breach. Unfortunately, that was the case for millions of Americans in September 2017 when more than 148 million people had personal information exposed in the Equifax data breach, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. That breach alone bared the financial records on 75% of all adult Americans with a credit report.
Are You a Data Breach Victim?
If you have been notified as a victim of a data breach, there is an increased likelihood that you may encounter another fraud risk within the following year as a result. A recent ITRC survey found that 81% of victims of the Equifax breach experienced worry or anxiety as a result, despite only 21% stating they saw unusual activity on their credit reports or new accounts.
How Identity Thieves Use Stolen Data
Once a data breach occurs, identity thieves behave differently depending on the personal data that is stolen. If credit card information is stolen, then identity thieves can sell this data on the dark web right away to make money quickly before the cards are reported missing by the consumer or the credit card issuer. In fact, a Federal Trade Commission experiment found that thieves attempted to access personal data within 9 to 90 minutes once it was exposed. That allows for almost no time to react before you or the breached company are aware.
With identity information such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, identity thieves are incentivized to wait before using the data. Waiting gives thieves time to collect additional information and build out more robust identity profiles in order to open up credit cards in individuals' names, file fraudulent tax returns, or get access to current bank accounts. It also allows for many identity theft protection plans, often provided for free to victims, to expire.
Data Breaches: Be Proactive Versus Reactive
Because identity thieves are counting on victims to do nothing, it pays off to be proactive when it comes to protecting your data. The same ITRC survey showed that 59% of Equifax data breach victims took advantage of free services offered to them, while almost 44% are still currently using them as of August 2018. Of the victim respondents, 18% took other actions that included paying for credit monitoring or identity theft protection services; 56% said they placed a freeze on their credit report.
How to Manage and Protect Your Data
- Stay alert. Keep an eye out for unusual mail, such as notices about new credit accounts from unknown lenders or letters from collection agencies. These can be a sign that you are a victim of identity theft or that you are part of a data breach. A breached company should send you a data breach notification. If they do, keep those documents and consider the suggestions or offers they make.
- Ignore personal data requests in the form of emails, phone calls or text messages that ask for your personal information, which could very well be scams.
- Sign up for free credit report monitoring to alert you to credit activity, such as new accounts in your name.
- Get a free dark web scan to see if your Social Security number, email or phone number has been compromised. Hackers will sell stolen information on the dark web; Experian, the publisher of this blog, offers a dark web scan that looks back to 2006, including thousands of sites and millions of data points.
- Lock your credit to prevent illegal activity or if you see any odd charges being made on your existing accounts. Both freezing and locking your credit file prevents potential lenders from accessing your credit file and is a preventative measure to protect against identity theft.
- Establish online access for all your accounts including your bank accounts, credit cards, utilities, 401(k)s, Social Security through MySSA, stocks, and health care benefits so you can control your data and monitor these accounts to spot fraudulent activity more quickly.
- Use two-factor authentication as an extra layer for the accounts that offer it—even social media accounts. This way, if one account gets hacked, you can take action before other accounts are affected. Remember, passwords aren't fail-safe.
- Use a tax identity PIN when filing your taxes to prevent criminals from committing tax fraud by filing in your name or claiming your refund. One of the most popular ways criminals try to profit from stolen personal information is to fraudulently file tax returns.
Data Breach Victim Action Plan
If you find out that you are a victim of a data breach and suspect you are an identity theft victim as well or are simply concerned about the long-term effects of a data breach, here are some actions you can take now to help protect your data:
- Add a free fraud alert to your Experian credit report, also known as an initial security alert, that warns lenders you may have been a fraud victim. This notifies any potential lender to take additional steps to verify your identity before providing any new line of credit in your name. A new nationwide law extends an initial fraud alert from 90 days to 12 months for free.
- Review your free Experian credit report to make sure that there are not any unwanted accounts opened in your name or using your personal information.
- File an identity theft report with your local police department through the non-emergency number and explain you are the victim of identity theft. They can tell you what information you need to provide.
- If you are a victim of identity theft, notify Experian to resolve fraudulent activity by speaking with Experian consumer assistance associates. They are trained to assist victims of fraud and identity theft both investigate and resolve fraudulent information on your credit report.
- Add a 7-year fraud victim alert to your credit report after you have confirmed you are an identity theft victim and have obtained a police report. This notifies future creditors that you have been a victim of fraud, and extra steps need to be taken to verify your identity.
Long-Term Data Breach Steps
If you are concerned about the long-term effects of a data breach, here are some additional tips to make to help protect your identity and data:
- Consider identity theft protection. If you are a member of Experian IdentityWorks, you can lock and unlock your Experian credit file at any time from your browser or with our mobile app, and receive real-time notifications when someone attempts to access your credit report.
- Get a free credit freeze placed on your accounts as a measure against identity theft. If you want to restrict access to your credit report, freezing your credit will prevent lenders and others from accessing your credit report in response to new credit applications. As of September 21, 2018, it's free to freeze and unfreeze your credit file as a result of a new nationwide law.
While some of these statistics can leave many feeling there is no prevention against a data breach, not everyone becomes a fraud victim. Taking quick action is the best way to limit the damage of your personal data being exposed. As it becomes harder for companies to match the sophistication of identity thieves and hackers, it's even more important to be proactive—before you become a victim.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on September 24, 2018, and has been updated.