What the Target Breach Means for You

This is the time of year for reflection, top 10 and “best of” lists. 2013 was a year of many things: Affordable Care Act, sequestration in Congress, the Boston Marathon bombing and more. More than anything, we saw leaps in technology. We saw firsthand how the government handles our personal data in the NSA scandal at the beginning of this year, and we are still seeing the rippling effects of the Target security breach a few weeks ago. I think it is safe to say that data is becoming the currency of the future fast, and security is nothing more than an investment. The question is: How risky is that investment?

From Black Friday to December 15, 2013, any Target customer that used a debit or credit card at one of their stores fell victim to one of the many large security breaches of customer data in the retail industry to date. As in other similar cases, a large majority of affected card numbers were not used fraudulently. However, as security breaches become more sophisticated, so do the options of usage by the offenders. Not only were these hackers able to obtain the card numbers, but they also got the name, expiration date and security codes of each card. Creating duplicate plastic cards would take time, but wouldn’t be out of the question. In the meantime, the breached data could be used to purchase virtually anything over the Internet. Encrypted PINs (Personal Identification Number) were stolen as well.

Yes, this breach is a big deal. Yes, there are very smart people out there doing bad things. But yes, there are steps that can be taken to avoid falling victim to a data breach in the future.

1. Sign for point-of-sale purchases instead of using your PIN. Selecting “credit” instead of “debit” covers your transaction under the FDIC and NCUA and makes it easier to detect fraudulent activity. If you always sign, and suddenly your bank sees your PIN being used for unusual purchases, red flags will go off quickly and you can recover your funds faster.

2. Be sure to keep important personal documents out of your wallet, such as your birth certificate, social security card and other documents or licenses with personal information that isn’t necessary for work or commuting. Devices that can read and scan information on credit cards and inside wallets and purses are inexpensive and largely available. A hacker can simply place this device at a point-of-sale register and scan information from hundreds of unsuspecting customers without leaving their car or a nearby cafe.

3. Making purchases online is nearly unavoidable. Be sure to use verified sites, secured and approved by your anti-virus spyware software—Yes, renew your subscriptions and run all of your updates! Each website has their own log-in information where you can save personal information, such as your billing and shipping addresses and your payment preferences. Change your passwords often and ensure they are different from site to site.

4. Passwords should be made intelligently. Don’t make your PIN or passwords from information that can be taken from items in your wallet or on your social media outlets (i.e. birthday, Mother’s maiden name, pet’s name, kid’s names or birthdays, etc.).

5. Check your bank statements diligently! Bank statements are only mailed out monthly or quarterly, depending on your bank’s disclosures. If available, enroll in your bank’s online banking services and electronic statements. Usually online banking allows you to set custom alerts to your account to be sent to your e-mail or cell phone as a text. You can set it by dollar amount of sale or below a predetermined account balance. Check your transaction history periodically (at least once a week), and make quick action on any discrepancies. Also, find a free credit score service like Credit Karma, to monitor accounts opened and closed in your name. You can stop identity theft from happening much faster when you’re armed with all of the right information. Otherwise, you may find out about identity theft at a critical time, such as buying a house or car, applying for a loan or going back to school.

Again, this world is getting more and more complicated, intricate and sophisticated in how it runs and conducts business. More and more data is required for the sake of convenience or to save money on consumer products. Protecting your data should be a top priority. Follow the steps above, and you should be off to a great start in protecting yourself against identity theft and fraud. Sometimes data breaches cannot be prevented or foreseen by even the largest companies (like Target), but we can take ownership in our own personal data as much as we can.

The Target breach is not the last data breach we will see, and it probably won’t be the most sophisticated in the 21st century. It would be wise to go into the marketplace with that in mind.

Be safe. Be well. Happy New Year!

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