The White House recently reissued a warning to American businesses in response to the unprecedented economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia for the Ukraine invasion, stating, “There is now evolving intelligence that Russia may be exploring options for potential cyberattacks.”
Along with this statement, the White House published a fact sheet outlining the new and ongoing steps the government is taking to protect its infrastructure and technologies, along with steps that private businesses can take to protect themselves from attacks as well.
Of course, any successful attack on government operations and the operations of private businesses could potentially affect households as well—such as in the case of data breaches where data or information is stolen from a system, often the personal data and information of individuals.
Word of potential attacks understandably leaves people feeling uncertain and may further leave them wondering if there’s anything they can do to protect themselves. With regards to data breaches and the cases of identity theft that typically follow, there are several steps people can take to keep safer online.
Let’s break down what a data breach looks like, how it can affect you, and what you can do in advance of a breach to protect yourself.
Examples of data breaches in the past
We’ve certainly seen data breaches make the news over the years, which are often (but not always) associated with malicious hackers or hacker organizations. A quick list of some of the largest and most impactful breaches we’ve seen in recent years:
- Facebook – 2019: Two datasets leaked the records of more than 530 million users, including phone numbers, account names, Facebook IDs, and more.
- Marriott International (Starwood) – 2018. Leakage of 500,000 guest names, emails, actual mailing addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, and information about stays.
- Equifax – 2017. Approximately 147 million records, including name, address, date of birth, driver’s license numbers, and Social Security Numbers were leaked, as well as credit card information for a further 200,000 victims.
Healthcare facilities have seen their data breached, along with the operations of popular restaurants. Small businesses find themselves in the crosshairs as well, with one report stating that 43% of data leaks target small businesses. Those may come by way of an attack on where those businesses store their records, a disgruntled employee, or by way of a compromised point-of-sale terminal in their store, office, or location.
What differs with the White House warning is who may end up being behind these potential attacks—a nation-state rather than what are financially motivated hackers or hacking groups. (Some research indicates that nearly 90% of breaches are about the money.) However, the result is the same. Your personal information winds up loose in the world and possibly in the hands of a bad actor.
What can get exposed in a data breach?
The fact is that plenty of our information is out there on the internet, simply because we go about so much of our day online, whether that involves shopping, banking, getting results from our doctors, or simply hopping online to play a game once in a while.
Naturally, that means the data in any given breach will vary from service to service and platform to platform involved. Certainly, a gaming service will certainly have different information about you than your insurance company. Yet broadly speaking, there’s a broad range of information about you stored in various places, which could include:
- Username and password
- E-mail address
- Phone numbers and home address
- Contact information of friends and family
- Date of birth
- Driver’s license number
- Credit card and debit card numbers, bank account details
- Purchase history and account behavior history
- Patient information (in the case of healthcare breaches)
- Social Security Number or Tax ID Number
As to what gets exposed and when you might find out about it, that can vary greatly as well. One industry research report found that 60% of breaches were discovered in just days from the initial attack while others could take months or even longer detect. Needless to say, the timeline can get rather stretched before word reaches you, which is a good reason to change your passwords regularly should any of them get swept up in a breach. (An outdated password does a hacker no good—more on that in a bit.)
What do cybercriminals do with this kind of information?
The answer is plenty. In all, personal information like that listed above has a dollar value to it. In a way, your data and information are a kind of currency because they’re tied to everything from your bank accounts, investments, insurance payments—even tax returns and personal identification like driver’s licenses.
With this information in hand, a crook can commit several types of identity crimes—ranging from fraud to theft. In the case of fraud, that could include running up a bill on one of your credits cards or draining one of your bank accounts. In the case of theft, that could see crooks impersonate you so they can open new accounts or services in your name. Beyond that, they may attempt to claim your tax refund or potentially get an ID issued in your name as well.
Another possibility is that a hacker will simply sell that information on the dark marketplace, perhaps in large clumps or as individual pieces of information that go for a few dollars each. However it gets sold, these dark-market practices allow other fraudsters and thieves to take advantage of your identity for financial or another gain.
Protecting yourself from the effects of data breaches
The succinct answer is to sign up for an identity protection service. It can monitor dozens of types of personal information and then alert you if any of them are possibly being misused, so you can address any issues right away before they become a potentially much bigger problem.
Further, pairing identity protection with online protection software can protect you even more. With an all-up view of your overall online security—how well you’re protecting yourself and your identity online—it can guide you through steps that can shore up your protection and make you safer still.
Identity protection such as ours gives you the added benefit of a professional recovery specialist who can assist with restoring your affairs in the wake of fraud or theft, plus up to $1 million in insurance coverage.
What if I think I’m the victim of identity theft?
When a business, service, or organization falls victim to a breach, it doesn’t always mean that you’re automatically a victim too. Your information may not have been caught up in it. However, it’s best to act as if it was. With that, we strongly suggest you take these immediate steps.
Change your passwords and use two-factor authentication
Given the possibility that your password may be in the hands of a bad actor, change it right away. Strong, unique passwords offer one of your best defenses against hackers. Update them regularly as well. As mentioned above, this can protect you in the event a breach occurs and you don’t find out about it until well after it’s happened. You can spare yourself the upkeep that involves a password manager that can keep on top of it all for you. If your account offers two-factor authentication as part of the login process, make use of it as it adds another layer of security that makes hacking tougher.
Keep an eye on your accounts
If you spot unusual or unfamiliar charges or transactions in your account, bank, or debit card statements, follow up immediately. That could indicate improper use. In general, banks, credit card companies, and many businesses have countermeasures to deal with fraud, along with customer support teams that can help you file a claim if needed.
Sign up for an identity theft protection service
As outlined above, identity protection like ours can monitor a broad set of your personal information and provide you guidance for making it more secure, in addition to getting help from a professional recovery specialist.
For an even closer look at identity theft, we have two articles that can help guide the way if you think you’re a victim, each featuring a series of straightforward steps you can take to set matters right:
Proactively protecting yourself and your family
No matter how uncertain news of possible cyberattacks may any of us feel, you can take steps to set some of that uncertainty aside. An identity protection service is a strong first move against possible identity theft, as is pairing it with online protection software that keeps you safer online overall. Likewise, knowing the signs of possible identity theft and what you can do to address it right away offer further assurance still—like having the services of a professional recovery specialist to help.
In all, there’s no need to leave yourself wondering at the news from the White House. As an individual, you have it in your power to make yourself and your family safer than they are now.