Take steps to limit damage if hackers snare your data

Online shopping

A woman uses a credit card to shop online. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images / August 11, 2014)

You might have gone to a supermarket, mailed a package at UPS or gone to a restaurant or hospital and thought nothing about holding your wallet tightly.

Yet, a thief might have preyed on you anyway. And if you are like millions of Americans, you are just finding out now.

In the past few weeks, computer-savvy thieves have been out in force, picking through personal information left behind at doctors offices, stores and government offices — stealing everything from Social Security numbers to your credit card and debit card numbers. According to some estimates, computer hackers — some from countries such as Russia and China — have been so busy, almost half of Americans have personal and money secrets in the hands of thieves.

Community Health Systems, with numerous hospitals throughout the country, reported that Chinese hackers had stolen 4.5 million patient records including names, addresses and Social Security numbers — the material anyone can use to open new accounts and use them without the individual ever suspecting anything.

Some of the most valuable information available includes Medicare or health insurance information, which sells for a premium on websites that sell data on the black market.

With pilfered Social Security numbers, people can pose as you for employment or get benefits you are owed.

Those with your credit card information may cause you the fewest problems. Card companies watch carefully for charges that don't seem right, and if they or you miss some, the bank will usually reimburse you for the fraudulent charges. Thieves with your debit card and ID can do more damage, taking money out of your bank account — often simply by using ATMs.

And people with your Social Security number, address and name can do a lot of damage: opening new accounts you might not detect because they won't be reflected on your bank or credit card statements.

You should be concerned. Depending on the data involved and how far a thief got with it, wiping out fraudulent records and charges, getting new cards, and re-establishing routine automatic payments online can be an ordeal. According to LifeLock, a firm that sells fraud-monitoring services, a data breach victim usually spends an average of 41 hours resolving everything.

What can you do if you've been affected by a breach or fear you have?

Call an institution that's been part of a breach and ask if you were involved. They also send letters.

If your credit card was involved, your bank will give you a new one if you ask, but setting up automatic payments all over again can be a pain.

Set up your bank account so you receive an alert on your mobile phone for any purchase above a certain amount. Keep in mind that thieves often start charging small amounts — maybe $10 — figuring you will look past them. A list of recent breaches is available at privacyrights.org.

If your information may have been compromised in a breach, the company might offer you a free service that will monitor your accounts for incorrect charges and check your credit report routinely.

On your own, you can watch your accounts daily or get immediate alerts about any charge a person makes on your account.

Contact Equifax credit reporting agency at 800-525-6285800-525-6285 and establish a 90-day fraud alert on your credit file. Equifax will alert the other credit reporting agencies: Innovis, Experian and TransUnion. Each might have different records, so involve all of them.

Request and examine your credit reports from all four agencies. You will get reports free because you established a fraud alert.

Report thefts to the Federal Trade Commission, your local police department, banks, credit unions, utilities and cellphone companies and fill out an identity theft affidavit with the IRS and state tax department.

To go even further after a hacking, you can tell Equifax or another credit bureau you want to put a freeze on your account. This means no one — including yourself — will be able to open a new credit card, get a car loan or mortgage or any other credit while the freeze is on.

This can be aggravating if you forget about the freeze, but you can lift it if you know you will be applying for a loan. In advance, check on any fees.

People with your Social Security number, address and name can do a lot of damage.

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