We have the world at our fingertips these days. From the way we conduct business and banking to our entertainment and household needs, we can access the information and services we use with a few quick clicks or taps. But with modern conveniences come modern problems as our personal accounts and the companies we trust to protect our private data are under constant threat.
Data is a valuable commodity for criminals looking for personal information that can be used to steal money, sell on the dark web, or exploit compromised identities through blackmail or extortion. Not only do hackers utilize it to take money directly from accounts, but they also use the information to commit identity fraud, criminal scams, and wreak havoc for businesses and their customers. The right data in the wrong hands can cause a great deal of damage to your reputation and your bottom line.
Understanding what a data breach is, how they occur, and how you can protect yourself can go a long way in stopping hackers in their tracks.
What Is a Data Breach?
A data breach is an incident in which information that should be safe is accessed without authorization. Intentional or unintentional, it involves the release of secure, private, confidential information to untrusted parties.
The more technology progresses, the more data we share, and the more personally identifiable information moves through digital networks. Cybercriminals launch attacks against the security protections placed on databases and data transfer channels to access full names, Social Security numbers, credit card account information, and other personal financial information.
Everyone is vulnerable to hackers, but businesses and financial institutions often become attractive targets because of the large amount of data they house. In one fell swoop, a data breach at a large corporation can compromise millions of customers’ data.
How Does a Data Breach Happen?
Data breaches can be accidental when proper protections are not in place or through human error, but they are typically targeted attacks by fraudsters and highly-skilled cybercriminals. These people find their way into secure networks using creative deception and technical skills in many ways.
An insecure or weak user password is one of the most common ways hackers gain access to accounts. People often use words and phrases that are easy to guess, such as their pet’s name or birthdate, or the same password for every account, leaving their data especially vulnerable.
People often find it annoying or cumbersome to update their devices or software. Sometimes they mistakenly believe prompts to update are just the company’s way of forcing new features into use. But the truth is, using out-of-date systems or software can leave your data unprotected as updates often contain patches and defenses against known vulnerabilities.
Fraud, Theft, or Mishandling of Data
Not every data breach requires high-tech skills. If someone steals or gains access to your computer, phone, or another device, they may be able to get your data directly from the source. A criminal can also scam you into giving them your account information over the phone, by mail, or through an email phishing scheme. A data breach can also occur when employees of the company handling your data misuse it intentionally or share it unintentionally by not following proper procedures.
Cybercriminals often manipulate users into clicking links, downloading attachments, or visiting vulnerable websites that install malware on computers or devices. Malware can do things like scan your computer’s memory to collect confidential data or capture keystrokes to steal passwords and other sensitive information. By infecting your device with malware, everything you have done or will do on that device becomes exposed.
Criminals are the top culprits behind data breaches. Targeted attacks start with using credentials purchased on the dark web, using coding skills to bypass security systems, installing malware, or using password-generating machines to guess logins. Then, the criminals hack into the organization’s network to steal whatever they are out to get, commit fraud, sell more data on the dark web, or conduct a wide range of further cyberattacks and other nefarious activities. It’s a vicious cycle that proves challenging to stop.
What to Do If You Are Affected by a Data Breach
Whether you get the news from a headline or through official customer communications, learning your information has been subject to a data breach through a company you do business with can be alarming.
It is important that you confirm the breach occurred right away, learn what information was leaked if possible, and take action quickly.
Change your online login and security questions immediately. Choose a complex password that would be difficult to guess for that company’s account, as well as the same for all linked accounts and anywhere else you use a similar login.
Contact all appropriate companies and organizations. If your credit card information was stolen, contact your financial institutions or retailers immediately and request a new card. If your driver’s license information was exposed, contact the DMV so they can flag suspicious activity. If your Social Security number was exposed, get credit monitoring, watch your credit closely, and consider freezing your credit report with all three credit bureaus to make it more difficult for criminals to open new accounts. Also, file your taxes as early as possible to prevent scammers from filing a fraudulent return in your name.
Finally, if the company that was breached offers to help repair possible damage or offers credit monitoring or identity protection for any length of time, consider accepting their help. If it is an otherwise reputable company, chances are their offer may be more robust than what you can do on your own.
How to Protect Yourself From Data Breaches
Consumers should always be proactive when it comes to safeguarding their personal information. Some of the steps you need to take may seem inconvenient, but they can save you a lot of expense and trouble.
Do Business With Companies You Trust
Big corporations tend to make the news when their company’s data is involved in a data breach. Still, reputable businesses are also highly invested in cybersecurity efforts because their bottom line depends on it. Avoid providing your information to companies if you suspect your data might be vulnerable, while also keeping in mind that many small businesses use reputable companies to house their data and conduct digital transactions.
Use Strong Passwords
Keeping track of multiple passwords and regularly updating your passwords might be annoying, but it’s worth it. Make sure your passwords are complex and unique for each one of your accounts. Avoid complete words and phrases and include numbers, special characters, and alternate cases when possible. If you’re avoiding using complex passwords because they are hard to remember, use a good password manager to track everything.
Monitor Your Accounts
Keep a close watch on your bank accounts, credit cards, and credit report. Check everything regularly and be on the lookout for suspicious or unfamiliar activity.
Secure Your Devices
Make sure your computer, phone, and other devices are locked with a complex password or biometric protection. This provides a defense against exposing some of your most sensitive data if anything is lost or stolen.
Whether you are shopping or filling out information online, make certain you are doing so securely. Never enter your credit card or personal information unless you are on a safe and reputable website with a secure URL, meaning it starts with “https://” rather than just “http://” when you look in your browser bar.
Be wary of sharing too much personal or sensitive information about yourself to people you may not trust. Particularly on social media, avoid allowing access to too much information or completing quizzes, surveys, and games that reveal details that could be used to answer security questions. Checking in online or tagging yourself when you are away from home can make you vulnerable to burglary and theft of devices with sensitive data.
Use Protective Software and Services
Installing security software on your computer can provide an extra layer of protection to block malware and viruses. Using credit monitoring services and identity theft protection services can help protect against damages caused by stolen identity and protect your personal information against what happens following a data breach.
The Bottom Line
Data breaches occur, no matter how careful you are. From small-time scammers to massive cybercriminal enterprises on the dark web, hacking data is big business, and it’s a lucrative one. The best way to protect yourself is to be aware, pay attention, avoid exposing your personal information as much as possible, and take action quickly when a data breach is suspected or confirmed.
Robert "Fenn" Giles, Jr., MBA, CIMA® is a founding partner of Wealth Advisors of Tampa Bay (WATB) and acts as the firm’s President and Chief Investment Officer. WATB is an independent Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) located in Tampa, Florida. Learn more about them at wealthadvtb.com.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
This material was prepared by Crystal Marketing Solutions, LLC, and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate and is intended merely for educational purposes, not as advice.