Whether you got an email, heard a story on the evening news, received a letter in the mail, or saw a post on a social media network, the news that your personal information has been breached hits hard. You immediately get that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach and begin to wonder if there is someone somewhere trying to open a credit card in your name. That feeling of vulnerability is only penetrated by one very critical thought: What you should do in a data breach.
The First Step
The first thing you should do in a data breach is contact the organization from which your personal data was stolen so that you can find out exactly what pieces of information were compromised. Credit or debit card numbers? Your Social Security number? Online logins or passwords? Bank account numbers? Your birthdate? Your driver’s license number? The next steps of what to do if your personal information is stolen will be determined based on the types of information that were taken. Be sure to identify every piece of your personal information that was stolen so that you can take every important step to preserve the safety of your credit and financial resources.
Credit and Debit Card Information & Bank Account Numbers
If your credit or debit card information is stolen, you must act quickly to minimize your risk of financial loss, so having financial accounts frozen or closed is one of the first things you should do in a data breach. Most banks do offer fraud protection, but once someone makes unauthorized charges to your cards, you may have to wait days, weeks, or even months to see refunds for those charges.
Call your credit or debit card issuer directly and request that your old card information be deactivated and a new one sent to you. This will change your card numbers, expiration dates, and security codes so that your stolen card information can no longer be used to make charges.
Check your posted and pending transactions with your bank or card issuer to ensure that someone hasn’t successfully made charges on your account already. If you find fraudulent charges, you can dispute them directly with your financial institution.
Usernames and Passwords
Unfortunately, logins and passwords for online accounts are compromised regularly. Sometimes hackers guess logins and passwords, but many times the information is stolen from a company or website with which someone does business. If this happens to you, you might wonder what you should do in a data breach.
If you have logins or passwords that have been compromised, change them immediately. For the safest bet, utilize a password generator so that your passwords are not easily guessed. If you use the same login or password for multiple accounts, be sure to change it everywhere you use it. It is a good idea to never use the same password twice, as it will help to protect you if your information is ever compromised in the future.
Social Security Numbers
If your Social Security Number is leaked along with other important information, such as your birthdate, you run the risk of having credit accounts opened under your name—the true definition of identity theft. With the right mix of information, a thief can open credit cards, get loans, buy a car, file tax returns, or even buy property—and then leave you holding the bag for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.
Not only can this damage your financial situation, but it can also ruin a perfectly good credit report as well.
If the company that compromised your personal information is offering it (and they definitely should), take advantage of free credit monitoring. This will alert you if anyone tries to open accounts under your name.
You should also obtain your credit reports from annualcreditreport.com—the only federally supported website for credit report ordering. Scour them for fraudulent accounts and/or inquiries and contact law enforcement and the creditors if you find anything suspicious.
You may also want to place a security freeze on your credit. You can do this by contacting the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—directly. A security freeze will make applying for new credit difficult for you, but it will make it impossible for someone who has stolen your personal information.
Driver’s License Information
If someone steals your driver’s license information, contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles promptly to report your license stolen—even if you still have your physical license. Your state may be able to flag your license in case someone attempts to use it. They may also suggest you apply for a duplicate license.
Tax Return Information, W-2s, or 1099s
Tax document theft is on the rise in the U.S., and it peaks between February and April each year. Thieves try to trick you or your employer into providing them with your W-2s or 1099s, and then they attempt to file a federal tax return using your information—while they steal your tax refund. Even if you’re not owed a refund, this can still make filing your taxes a nightmare
This can be prevented by filing your taxes as early as possible—preferably as soon as you receive all of your necessary documents. If anyone calls or emails you and asks you for your Social Security Number or tax information, know that it is a scam. The IRS will only make initial contact with taxpayers via U.S. Mail.
Always Check Your Credit Report
Get in the habit of checking your credit report and checking it often. Americans are due one free credit report per year from each of the major credit bureaus, so mark your calendar and check your reports each and every year.
You may actually wish to check your report more frequently, and to do that, you can either pay for a credit report—or utilize a credit reporting service such as Credit Sesame or Credit Karma, which allow their users to view their credit reports for free or for a nominal fee.
Checking your credit report frequently can help to prevent problems now and in the future, and should problems arise, it helps to mitigate them before they get out of hand.