A few months ago it was Target and Michael’s. Then it was Heartbleed and Michael’s (again). Now, we’re hearing about a security bug in Internet Explorer. Certainly, data breaches are frustrating for businesses and consumers alike, but new studies suggest they’re just part of life in this Internet-based electronic age.
Take Akamai Technologies’ State of the Internet report released last month. It revealed that hackers attacked websites 75 percent more frequently in the fourth quarter of last year than in the previous quarter — that’s a span of only three months. Further, the Identity Theft Resource Center recorded an increase of 30 percent from 2012 to 2013 on its ITRC breach list.
It’s all pointing to a new reality. All consumers, however careful, who use credit or debit cards or conduct transactions on the Internet face multiple security risks every year. While we may be powerless to prevent data breaches in today’s modern society, we can nevertheless take some steps to avoid becoming powerless victims.
Don’t make it easy for scammers. If you get an unsolicited phone call or email that appears to be from your credit card company, bank or other retailers and they ask you to verify account information and to call back at a certain number or connect to a provided link where you can log into your account, don’t do it. Instead, call the company at the number you know to be theirs or go to its URL on your own to log in. While some calls or emails are perfectly legitimate, others are phishing in an attempt to get your account information.
Pay attention to monthly statements. Look through credit card statements each month to ensure you recognize every transaction, and reconcile your checking accounts each month as well. Oftentimes, thieves will raid your accounts through a series of small transactions that could easily go unnoticed. By checking those transactions each month, you’re more likely to identify a problem early, before it grows out of control.
Review your credit report on a regular basis. Each of the major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — provide consumers with one free report each year. They can be accessed at annualcreditreport.com. Order one from a different bureau every four months. Check the credit reports to see if anyone has opened any fraudulent accounts in your name. If you have been part of a breach, take advantage of the free credit report and data protection offered in response and watch your accounts closely. This is a critical step because in most data breaches, thieves are more likely to obtain your personal information to open new credit cards than they are to use your existing cards.
Change your passwords on a regular basis. Many people use the same password on multiple sites and choose something that’s easy to remember — and therefore easy to guess. To minimize your risk, use different passwords that mix letters, capitalization, numbers and symbols on all sites. This can seem daunting, especially for consumers with dozens of online accounts, but password managers can help. Just be sure to use one that is housed on your computer rather than in the cloud. PC World recommends open-source programs such as Password Safe and KeePass.
Shred financial information, whether it’s a bank statement or a credit card offer. Dumpster diving still occurs, even today.
These are good measures to avoid problems and spot them early when they do occur, but at this time there is no fail-proof way to protect your data. If you think you are getting scammed via email, forward the email to spam@UCE.gov. If the scam is happening via telephone, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at econsumer.gov. In Wisconsin, you may also want to call the state attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-422-7128.
Additionally, if you spot anything unusual, report it to your bank or credit card company immediately. And if your financial world is thrown into chaos as a result of a scam or breach, and you don’t seem to be getting the assistance you need, an attorney can help you sort through the mess and contact those most able to help to clear it up.
To avoid serious problems, however, consumers need to be as persistent in protecting their data as the scammers are in gaining access to it.