Data breaches, where unauthorized individuals gain access to confidential data, are rising at an alarming rate and pose a significant risk to individuals and organizations. Hackers can steal or hold hostage virtually all data you store or share online, including email accounts and financial information.
Data breaches can have devastating consequences, such as financial loss and significant harm to personal and professional reputations. Recognizing and properly responding to a data breach can mitigate the damage.
Understanding Data Breaches
In a data breach, unauthorized individuals gain access to protected or confidential data. This data could involve personal information, such as names, Social Security numbers, or financial data (including credit card details and bank account numbers); proprietary corporate information; or sensitive government records. A breach typically occurs when an intruder bypasses security measures and infiltrates a data source to extract information.
Common Causes of Data Breaches
Data breaches have numerous causes, but some are more common than others. Weak or stolen credentials, such as passwords, are a leading cause, and software vulnerabilities, insider threats, and insufficient security measures can expose data.
Human errors, such as the sending of information to the wrong recipient, lost devices containing sensitive data, or inadvertent malware downloads, can also lead to breaches. Understanding these standard causes can be beneficial in taking preemptive measures to avoid data breaches.
The Effects of Data Breaches
While data breach definitions and causes offer valuable insight, understanding the negative effects of a data breach is an essential step when thoroughly assessing their significance. Data breaches can harm individuals, businesses, and even society in numerous and sometimes unexpected ways.
If your personal information becomes compromised, it can lead to various problems, such as identity theft, a prevalent issue in today’s digital age. When somebody steals confidential data, such as Social Security numbers, bank account details, or credit card information, they can use it to impersonate you and engage in illegal activities. These unlawful actions can include securing loans in your name or making fraudulent purchases, leading to serious repercussions.
The financial effects can be immediate and long-lasting. For individuals, stolen credit card or bank account details can lead to fraudulent transactions that can drain their savings. Businesses can face substantial financial loss because of legal penalties, customer compensation, or reputational damage that leads to loss of business. A data breach can harm an individual’s financial status, leaving them on a long and arduous road to recovery.
A less-discussed but equally significant aspect of data breaches is the social effects.
Large-scale data breaches can shake consumer confidence and trust in digital transactions and online activities.
This lack of confidence can hinder the growth of e-commerce, digital banking, and other online services. Breaches that expose sensitive personal information can lead to social stigma and damage personal relationships. Data breaches’ repercussions extend far beyond finances and reach into our societal structures.
Data breaches’ effects are broad and significant, harming individuals and businesses financially and personally while also compromising society’s trust in digital transactions and online activities. Recognizing these potential consequences underscores the critical importance of detecting and responding to data breaches swiftly and effectively before more damage occurs.
Signs of a Data Breach
Several signs may indicate a breach of your data, and recognizing these signs is the first step in damage control.
Unusual Account Activity
One of the most straightforward signs of a data breach is unusual activity in your accounts. This could include unauthorized transactions on your credit or debit cards, unexpected withdrawals from your bank account, or strange activity on your online accounts; for instance, you might receive notifications about sign-in attempts from unfamiliar locations or devices or even changes in account settings that you did not initiate.
Unexpected Password Changes
If you cannot log in to any of your online accounts using your regular credentials, that is often a telltale sign. You may discover that an unauthorized individual has accessed your account and changed your password without you knowing. If this occurs, contact your service provider immediately and take steps to regain control of your account.
New and Unfamiliar Accounts or Charges
Another indication that someone has breached your data is the sudden appearance of unfamiliar accounts or charges. If you notice new accounts under your name that you did not authorize or unexpected charges on your financial statements, this could mean that someone has compromised your personal data and is using it fraudulently.
Notifications from Businesses or Institutions
When a company experiences a data breach, it will often notify individuals if the breach involved their data via email, letter, or phone call. If you receive one of these notifications, hackers might have breached your data. Respond as the company advises, which may include changing passwords or monitoring accounts for suspicious activity.
Recognizing these signs is the first step to identifying a data breach, but instead of panicking, take the necessary steps to confirm the breach and mitigate the potential damage.
How to Confirm a Data Breach
Once you suspect a possible breach, take immediate action to protect yourself from further harm. Here are a few steps you can take to verify that someone has compromised your data:
Contact Your Bank or Credit Card Provider
If you suspect a compromise of your financial information, contact your bank or credit card provider straight away. They can review your account for any suspicious activity, block your cards if necessary, and issue new ones. They can guide you through the other necessary steps, depending on the breach’s severity.
Check With Credit Reporting Agencies
Credit reporting agencies that keep track of your financial history, including any new accounts in your name or hard inquiries on your credit. Regularly checking your credit reports allows you to see if any unfamiliar activity has occurred, such as a sudden drop in your credit score or new accounts you did not open.
In the United States, you get a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Use Online Tools to Check for Breaches
Several online tools allow you to check whether your email or phone number has been part of a data breach. By simply entering your email address or phone number, these tools will inform you if your data was part of a known data breach.
Contact the Company That Suffered the Breach
If you receive a notification from a company stating that they experienced a data breach, contact them for more information. They should tell you what data the cybercriminal exposed and advise you on what actions to take.
Steps to Take After a Data Breach
With swift action, you can regain control over your personal information and reduce the risk of future data breaches.
Change Your Passwords
Change all your passwords immediately, starting with the compromised accounts. If possible, use a different computer or device to do this in case the cybercriminal has compromised your usual device. Remember to use a strong and unique password for each of your accounts and avoid using obvious information, such as names or birthday dates.
Monitor Your Accounts Closely
You must monitor your accounts closely to catch any signs of fraudulent activity after a breach. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, and even online shopping accounts. Watch for unfamiliar transactions, no matter how small, and report anything suspicious to the relevant institution immediately.
Freeze Your Credit
Another powerful tool in your arsenal is the ability to freeze your credit. A credit freeze restricts access to your credit report, which makes it difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. In the United States, you can request a credit freeze for free from all three major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Report the Breach to the Appropriate Authorities
Reporting the breach to the appropriate authorities is important. This can include your local police department, especially if you are an identity theft victim. If someone compromised your financial information, report the breach to your bank or credit card company and the relevant regulatory bodies or financial institutions.
How to Protect Yourself From Future Data Breaches
A data breach serves as a stark reminder of the importance of proactively protecting your personal data. The following practical steps can reduce your vulnerability to future data breaches:
Regularly Update Passwords
One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from data breaches is by regularly changing your passwords. Security experts recommend updating your passwords every three to six months. Each password should be unique and hard to guess, including a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. You can manage multiple complex passwords efficiently and securely using a password manager.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication is a system that requires two types of identification before granting access to an account; for instance, after inputting your password (factor one), you will receive a unique code via text or email that you must enter to access your account (factor two). This extra layer of security can be instrumental in preventing unauthorized access, even if somebody has compromised your password.
Be Cautious of Phishing Attempts
Phishing is a common method hackers use to trick you into revealing your personal or sensitive information. Be vigilant about the emails you receive, especially those that prompt you to click on a link or download an attachment. Always verify the source before providing personal information. If something seems suspicious, contact the company directly.
Regularly Check for Unusual Account Activity
Regularly monitoring your accounts is vital to protecting yourself from data breaches. You should check your bank accounts, credit cards, and any online accounts where you share sensitive information regularly so that you can promptly identify unauthorized or suspicious activity and take swift action.
Protect Your Data With an Experienced Legal Professional on Your Side
Data breaches can cause significant personal, financial, and social damage; recognizing the signs of a data breach, understanding how to confirm it, and taking the right steps after the breach can mitigate these effects.
By maintaining a proactive approach, you can protect yourself from the dangers of data breaches and keep your personal information secure. For more information about data breaches and your legal options, contact an experienced legal professional today.
Mr. Finkelstein is the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, LLP. He has become a noted consumer activist through his representation of injured individuals against corporate wrongdoers and irresponsible parties.
An accomplished litigator, Mr. Finkelstein has represented Plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has successfully handled dozens of multi-million dollar cases.