older adults worry about identity theft

5 Tips on How to Keep Your Personal Information Safe (And What to Do If Your Data Is Compromised)

Finding out that a company you’ve done business with has been hacked can be unnerving to say the least. Unfortunately, dozens of companies, including LinkedIn, Target, Uber, Bank of America, and Home Depot have experienced data breaches in the past few years.

A quick internet search brings up countless questions, concerns, and complaints about data breaches. “I just got a letter in the mail from a service I’ve never used myself, informing me that my employer had my information on their website and it was hacked,” says Reddit user EuphioMachine. “Apparently they were able to see my email, name, phone number, address and my Social Security number.”

Do you know how to keep your personal information safe? If you’ve ever purchased a product or service online, submitted your taxes online, or filled out a job application with your name, birthdate, and Social Security number, your information could be leaked in a breach.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to protect your data from getting into the wrong hands. Here’s what you need to know to prevent yourself from becoming a victim.

How to Keep Your Personal Information Safe – Top 5 Tips

While data breaches can’t be entirely prevented, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk, including the following.

1. Be overprotective of your data

It seems like most retail businesses ask for your email, zip code, or phone number when you’re checking out. Most of this information is used for marketing research and targeting. But you should know you don’t have to give any of it out, either in person or online (unless you’re having something shipped to you). Don’t be afraid to ask why the information is necessary to complete a purchase.

When it comes to filling out financing applications at stores or submitting credit card numbers for automatic payments, you do need to surrender more personal information. But make sure every piece of data you hand out is absolutely needed by an institution before doing so.

2. Know how to find and validate breach notifications

The correct response to a data breach notification varies. Should you be notified by mail that a breach has occurred, complete the necessary steps if the data obtained puts you at risk (more on this below). But if you receive notification through email, be cautious. These notifications can be false and sent from hackers posing as legitimate companies with links or attachments containing malware.

Not all breaches are announced to the public. To see the latest breaches or check to see if a company has been hacked, visit privacyrights.org/data-breach.

3. Monitor your medical records and insurance benefits

We’ve all heard of credit card numbers being stolen and used to make unwarranted purchase, but what about health insurance cards? There were 87,765 cases of medical and insurance-related identity theft in 2018, an alarming number for a type of identity theft not often discussed.

Take the time to periodically check your paid out medical insurance benefits to make sure no one is posing as you to receive treatment and be sure to shred all medical documents once you no longer need them.

4. Continuously monitor your accounts

Check credit card bills, bank statements, insurance claims, and any other financial accounts on a regular basis. Always check to make sure log in records match your sign-in dates and look for any other suspicious activity.

You should also monitor your Social Security earnings record. Whenever possible, activate notifications for suspicious activity on all your accounts (financial or not).

5. Conduct a password audit

While you should change your passwords every so often, it’s more important to come up with a strong password for every account you have.

If you struggle to keep track of your passwords, using a password manager can help. And whenever it’s offered, take advantage of two-factor authentication as well.

What to Do After a Data Breach

You can take all the right precautionary steps and still fall victim to a data breach. But even if you are informed that your personal data has been leaked, there’s no need to panic just yet. The first step is to find out what kind of information was put at risk and then determine what the next step should be.

Stolen data falls into three categories.

  • Minimal risk: Any sort of data that is easy to find on its own, like your first, middle, last, or maiden name, birthdate, or current and previous street addresses won’t get a hacker very far, as long as that’s all they have. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious, but additional steps are likely unnecessary at this point.
  • Moderate risk: If a hacker has gained access to your email address or credit card numbers, it’s time to be proactive. Keep an eye out for suspicious emails with strange requests or links. Notify the appropriate financial institution about your compromised account(s), ask for replacement cards, and cancel your current cards. Luckily, fraudulent charges on credit cards are easy to fight thanks to liability clauses, but debit cards don’t always offer the same protection.
  • Severe risk: Should your Social Security number, passport information, bank account numbers, or credit card security codes become compromised, you’ll need to act quickly. A hacker with your bank account number or credit card security codes knows they have a limited window before you or your financial establishment freezes your account so they’ll do as much damage as they can as fast as possible. Immediately call your bank or card provider if you think your data has been compromised and speak to a representative to take the appropriate steps.

Final Advice

If you’re concerned about becoming a victim of leaked information, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit report. This is a type of notice that will pop up when someone attempts to open a new line of credit under your name, whether it’s you or an imposter. In the U.S., fraud alerts are free for anyone who asks.

You’re also entitled to three free credit reports a year (one from each bureau). You can ask for them all at once, but we recommend spacing them out throughout the year so you can catch any suspicious activity as soon as possible.

Learning how to keep your personal information safe will always take time and effort, and at the end of the day, you can’t prevent every data breach. But by making security and data protection a part of your routine, you’ll be better protected should the unthinkable happen.

This post is also available in: German