Your name, your address, your email—these might seem like boring facts from your day-to-day life, but to digital criminals they're all valuable data points worth snatching in a data breach. And with these seemingly innocent details or even a stolen password or two, hackers can turn your digital and real life upside down.
If you know or suspect that your information has been leaked as part of a data breach, there are steps you can take immediately to lessen the impact of the breach, including running a privacy scan. Here's what you need to know.
What Is a Data Breach?
A data breach occurs when a company's or individual's stored data is accessed or open to access by unauthorized parties. Hackers breaking into a storage server to steal financial information from bank clients or a health care employee losing their laptop that contains patients' digital records are just two examples of how data breaches can occur. Data breaches—whether nefariously intentional or innocently accidental—open people up to identity theft, invasion of privacy and costly financial losses.
Bad actors committing data breaches are often in search of information that can be used to steal money. Credit and debit card numbers, bank logins and private identifying information like Social Security numbers are common targets criminals seek in data breaches. Thieves may use this information directly to open credit card accounts or hijack tax refunds, for example, or sell the information to others.
Companies that store this kind of information, such as businesses, health care organizations and financial institutions, are at greater risk of data breaches. Legally, companies are obligated to tell you if they have been the victim of a security breach where your data is involved.
If you find out your information has been exposed as part of a data breach, there may be some signs that it's being abused. For instance, you might start receiving strange mail for things you never signed up for. Or you may see an account on your credit report you didn't open. These are signs that it's time to take action to protect yourself. Running a privacy scan is one step you can take to find out where your information may be exposed.
What Are Privacy Scans?
Privacy scans are online tools that can search hundreds of digital records in minutes, helping you pinpoint where your information is so you can work to get it removed. When you're the victim of a data breach and your privacy is in jeopardy, it's a smart way to be proactive to find out who may have acquired your information.
Experian's personal privacy scan tool, for example, scans people finder sites to see if any of your personal information has been posted without your permission. Using this tool, you can contact companies and ask them to remove your information.
How to Protect Yourself in the Future
Data breaches are often outside your control, but there are a few steps you can take to reduce your potential exposure beyond using a privacy scan.
- Place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report. Adding a fraud alert or credit freeze to your credit report can make it much more difficult for criminals to open credit accounts in your name. A fraud alert asks lenders to verify your identity before opening an account in your name. If you place a fraud alert with one of the big three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax), the other two bureaus will be notified and an alert will be added to all three of your reports. If you'd prefer more extreme action, you can freeze your credit so lenders cannot access your credit reports and therefore cannot open new lines of credit in your name. Different from a fraud alert, you must place credit freezes with each credit bureau separately.
- Do not store form data with online merchants. Try to avoid saving information like your credit card number or SSN in autofill forms or online profiles.
- Use unique passwords for every account on every website. If you have trouble remembering varied passwords you can use a secure password manager app to store them. Avoid writing passwords down in a document or even on a hard copy in your home.
- Take advantage of free credit monitoring. Often when a company experiences a data breach, it will offer those affected free credit monitoring for a period of time. You can also get free credit monitoring from Experian anytime, which will alert you when your credit report shows a new account or inquiry, and also provides free access to your credit report and score.
- Visit the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft website. This can give you some more practical tips about how to respond to a data breach.
Running Experian's personal privacy scan and monitoring your credit report can help you protect yourself after a data breach. Take action immediately if you notice anything strange. When you take proactive steps to protect your privacy, you minimize the risks related to data breaches.