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Am I a Victim of Identity Theft? How to Know and What to Do

It can be quite scary to see a headline that says your favorite store has experienced a security breach. Unfortunately, those alerts appear more and more frequently these days. What’s going on? Why are all the best stores being hacked, and what exactly does it mean when your information has been compromised? Are you a victim of identity theft? What should you do if you’ve bought goods at those stores during the time frame in question?

Caught in The Hack

Identity theft is defined as the fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information, usually for financial gain.A security breach can be complicated. Simply put, identity theft is not always the result of a security breach, but it could be. The criminals behind these cyber attacks are just that -- criminals. Sometimes, all they acquire is names or birth dates. Other times, they get passwords and account numbers. The worst part is that the targeted stores rarely know exactly how much information was stolen.

Trying to decipher the motive of a cybercrook isn’t very helpful. Some have political reasons, many are interested in any vulnerabilities they can find, and others still are just learning and accidentally achieve an “in” they shouldn’t be able to reach. Often, bad guys don’t lurk in dark basements with sophisticated equipment the way Hollywood portrays. You’ll be surprised to learn that most offenders write programs to do all the heavy lifting for them. Password decryption and trolling for open ports can be done while bad guys are out to lunch.

The good news is you’re not alone. The FBI has been tracking fraudulent financial activity for decades, and their best experts are constantly on the case. Plus, there are a number of helpful resources available to you from the Federal Trade Commission, should you ever become a target. Perhaps the best news of all is you’re not powerless. You can protect yourself in the future.

Cyber Smarts

Do your part to keep yourself and others safe from online villains. Here’s are some tips.

  • When you’re online, don’t click on every link that looks interesting. If you do, you’ll likely fall prey to a phishing scam before long. Phishing is a term used to describe crooks who pose as authoritative entities such as banks, governments, or law enforcement. To be safe, don’t open emails from anyone you don’t recognize or click on links that look suspicious. Avoid sites that have excessive popup ads or ask you to provide information.
  • Another way to protect yourself against identity thieves is to simplify your credit card usage. If you’re swiping a store credit card at every cash register you visit, then you’re more likely to fall victim to fraudsters who have installed malware there.
  • Use cash when you can. If shopping online, consider PayPal instead of punching in your card number whenever possible.
  • Guard your personal information closely. Don’t ever use email or text messaging to send your credit or debit card number, bank account number, or social security number.
  • Never give out personal identifying information if you did not initiate the exchange. If someone contacts you looking for this information, assume it is attempted fraud.
  • Monitor your credit report and credit card statements as well as bank statements. Watch closely for any charges or accounts you don’t recognize.
  • Use strong passwords and do not use the same password in multiple places.
  • Contact local authorities and your state’s attorney general if ever you suspect fraudulent activity or vulnerable businesses.
  • If you shopped at a big box store that later announced a hack, take the time to change all your passwords and be extra vigilant for shady activity on your accounts.

Consumer Education Services, Inc. (CESI) is a non-profit committed to empowering and inspiring consumers nationwide to make wise financial decisions and live debt free. Speak with a certified counselor for a free debt analysis today

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