Identity Theft & Data Breach Response

Data breaches occur with shocking regularity.  The news is full of reports of data being spilled by companies and individuals being targeted for identity theft.  Few of these stories contain much useful information on appropriate data breach response, however.  Once your information has been spilled it is impossible to fully recover it.  However, there are some meaningful data breach response steps you can take if you do fall victim to this type of crime.

  1. Contact your financial institutions immediately. If you think your financial information has been compromised this should be your first step.  Call your bank or credit card issuer and alert them to the problem.  Frequently your bank will contact you if suspicious activity occurs, but if you know something they don’t, don’t wait!  Request to cancel your credit and debit card numbers and be issued new ones.  Use new PINs on these cards, and ask the bank to flag your account for suspicious activity.
  2. Contact the credit reporting bureaus.  If you do not have a credit freeze in place and the breach involves financial information, you should immediately contact Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Some online resources advise placing a fraud alert on your account at this point; I recommend a credit freeze (see below).
  3. Change your login information.  If you suspect an online account has been breached you should immediately change its password and, if possible, username.  If the account does not already have two-factor authentication enabled, enable it.  In addition, you should also change the login credentials for any accounts associated with the breach account.
  4. Contact local law enforcement and file a report.  I will be honest – your local law enforcement agency probably isn’t going to open an investigation and bring the perpetrator to justice, so be prepared for that.  What they will do is generate a police report for you.  This serves as proof that you were the victim of identity theft.  This can help you recover your credit later if the need should arise.  It can also assure that you get free credit freezes for life (see below).  It may also be useful if you attempt to opt-out of public and non-public databases as Michael and I recommend in The Complete Privacy and Security Desk Reference.

Of course, the best spillage, identity theft, or data breach response is preemptive (the best defense is, after all, a good offense).  There are several steps you can take to make yourself more resilient against identity theft.  The time to act is now – once your information is online you will never completely erase it.  I am a strong advocate for dealing with the problem before it is a problem!

  1. Use strong authentication for online accounts.  Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication on all of your online accounts.  Though this isn’t a guarantee that your accounts are safe, you are unlikely to fall into the “victim of opportunity” category.
  2. Use unique usernames.  Though this could fall under the above category, I am listing it discretely because I think it protects you where strong passwords and two-factor authentication do not: customer service reps.  If an attacker knows your username, he or she can often convince a customer service rep to give out sensitive information.  Using a unique username gives you a great layer of protection against this type of attack.
  3. Have a credit freeze in place.  A credit freeze with each of the credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) is the strongest measure you can take to ensure new credit is not issued in your name.  Credit freezes also protect your personal information and credit report.  A credit freeze will not protect your current accounts and lines of credit, however.
  4. Use one-time credit card numbers.  Some credit card issuers offer this option organically.  A one-time credit card number is only good for one purchase.  If a hacker recovers it, it will no longer be valid and cannot make a charge to your account.  If your bank does not offer this an online service that I recommend called Blur does.
  5. Limit personal information that is publicly available.  Large amounts of personal information make you vulnerable to social engineers.  This information can be pieced together to allow someone to impersonate you in order to gain access to your financial or online accounts.  I recommend minimizing the information you place in the public domain on social media, personal blogs, etc.  If a great deal of information is available about you, remove it!  More information is available in The Complete Privacy and Security Desk Reference which will be publicly available soon.

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