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How to protect yourself from data breaches

Chris Kissell
March 13, 2018
how to protect yourself from data breaches

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Technology has the power to make our lives easier and more productive. But relax your defenses, and those same electronic wonders can unleash chaos.

Data breaches are on the rise, putting your sensitive data at risk. Such thefts typically occur when hackers gain unauthorized access to information about you that is stored by the government, corporations and other entities.

Information that might be at risk includes your:

  • Social Security number
  • Credit card numbers
  • Health care history

Once this information is in the wrong hands, it can be used to steal your identity and commit financial fraud in your name.

There were 625 data breaches reported in the U.S. during 2017, involving more than 1.9 million records, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s Chronology of Data Breaches. That marked an 8% increase from the previous year.

While it is easy to think of data breaches as someone else’s problem, you should remain on guard for such activity, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

“Consumers should continue to be vigilant when notified of a data breach,” Stephens says.

In fact, last year’s massive data breach of credit-reporting agency Equifax impacted nearly half of all Americans. Odds are high that a data breach has potentially compromised your information in the past – and will do so in the future.

How to protect yourself from data breaches

Stephens notes that different kinds of data may be involved in different breaches, and each may require a different type of response.

However, if you are very worried about data breaches, there is one action you can take that will protect you better than any other step.

“The most important thing they can do is place a security freeze on their credit reports,” Stephens says. “This can help prevent many types of identity theft.”

A security freeze — more commonly known as a “credit freeze” — involves contacting the three major credit agencies, including Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, to make sure that no one can open an account in your name.

In some states, there is no cost to request a credit freeze. In others, you will pay a fee of about $10. Equifax currently is offering free credit freezes to people in all states through the end of June. In addition, Congress is weighing legislation that would make credit freezes free for everyone.

To completely freeze your credit, you must make the request to all three credit-reporting agencies.

There is a downside to freezing your credit: A freeze also prevents you from opening an account, although you can lift and reinstitute the freeze if you need to.

Less extreme measures for protecting your personal information include:

Credit monitoring. Simply keeping an eye on your credit report can alert you to unusual and possibly fraudulent activity. You can also pay for services that will monitor on your behalf. However, this will not prevent identity theft — it simply allows you to spot it, so you can then take action.

Fraud alerts. If you don’t want to pay for a credit freeze, you can ask one of the three major credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your account. This will alert all potential creditors that they must verify your identity before opening a new account in your name.

There is no charge for this service, and once you ask one agency to institute a fraud alert, it is required to alert the other two agencies so they can follow suit.

Fraud alerts typically remain in place for 90 days, but can be renewed. If you are the victim of identity theft, you might be able to extend a single fraud alert to a period of seven years. Alerts can help prevent new accounts from being opened in your name, but they can’t stop thieves from using your existing accounts to commit fraudulent activity.

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