Today's data breaches are like a game of musical chairs: sooner or later, you'll have to face the music. Last year was bad for data security: More than 800 million records containing sensitive consumer data were exposed. News of breaches keeps rolling in. Identity theft--which had been considered a crass scare tactic conjured up by creative marketing departments to sell solutions to a non-problem - has become the third certainty in life, alongside death and taxes.
With a virtual parade of high-profile security breach stories in the news--nevermind the terrifying Heartbleed bug and its unknowable and incalculable repercussions--the problem of data security and identity theft is getting more attention than ever, but increasingly it's difficult to know who's to blame, and what, if anything, you can do to protect yourself.
While consumer advocates and politicians argue (rightfully) for greater protection of consumer data; better, faster and more in-depth explanations regarding data breaches; and tougher penalties for thieves and sanctions for compromised organizations, it can be easy to forget that in the data breach blame game, other than the bad guys, everyone else loses, particularly consumers.
Forget the Stats, Your Data Is Everywhere
It's easy to blame 'Big Business' for data breaches, but the fact of the matter is that government agencies, educational institutions and medical organizations are also culpable in exposing millions of Americans' data.
The Identity Theft Resource Center compiles a rolling list of breaches per calendar year and the number of records exposed in them. They're broken down by category: Business, Banking/Credit/Financial, Medical/Healthcare, Government/Military and Education.
According to the ITRC, there have already been about 8.3 million records exposed in 250 breaches so far in 2014.
More than half of those 250 breaches fall under the rubric of Medical/Healthcare, suggesting that health care data is some of the most vulnerable. However, with a reported number of 1.38 million records exposed at medical or health care institutions (the actual number could be a bit higher), businesses -- with a total of 5.85 million breached records thus far in 2014 -- are actually to blame for compromising more consumers, even though they've experienced fewer actual breaches.
Now let's consider that of the 12 recorded data breaches at educational institutions, more than 820,000 records were exposed. While educational breaches represent less than 5 percent of the total number of breaches so far this year, those breaches are very fruitful for identity thieves since they account for roughly 10 percent of the total records exposed.
The point is, there is a staggering assortment of ways and schemes to get got by the bad guys. While the name-brand breaches make for splashy headlines and lead the evening news, a huge number of data breaches happen in public institutions and government agencies that make less news but possibly contain more of the information fraudsters need to open new lines of credit, steal health care coverage or claim tax refunds.
We live in a world where our personally identifying information travels everywhere and anywhere in the service of everything from paying our taxes to voting to getting medical care to making everyday purchases. The result is a form of information chaos.
What You Can Do
So instead of playing the data breach blame game, you need to take control of the situation. Do a few simple things every day and make yourself a tougher get, have the tools to quickly determine if you are in harm's way and have a solution in place to deal with the fallout. You just need to follow the three Ms.
Minimize your risk. If you learn that your data has been exposed as a result of a compromise, check your credit and put a fraud alert on your file. If the breached organization offers free credit monitoring, sign up. It's not a solution, but it can be helpful. If you are very concerned, put a freeze on your credit so that no one can open a new credit account unless and until you thaw it.
Monitor your credit and accounts. Get your free credit report at least once a year. Check your credit scores every month. This is a good way to see if someone is using your data to commit fraud. If you have any unauthorized credit accounts that have gone delinquent, it's highly likely that your credit scores will reflect that. Any unexpected drop in your scores should be treated like a red alert, and are a sign to check your credit reports for accounts that are not yours. (You can monitor two of your credit scores every month through Credit.com for free.)
If you use email, or spend any time at all on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, chances are good that a few minutes (or hours) a day get frittered away. Take a few of those minutes and check your credit card statements online to make sure everything is as it should be. Check your bank accounts, as well. While you may not want to be reminded of how much money you have in the bank (and/or owe), by making this part of your daily online routine, you will know when you"ve become the victim of identity theft far sooner than you would otherwise.
Enroll in free transactional monitoring programs. Banks, credit unions and credit card companies offer free account activity notifications by text or email.
Consider buying more sophisticated credit and fraud monitoring products and services. Remember, you can't begin the process of solving a problem until you know there is a problem. Since you have a day job and can't spend every minute of your life on high alert, you need someone watching out for you.
Manage the damage. Contact your insurance agent, financial institutions as well as the HR department at work. Many offer programs at little or no expense to assist policyholders, clients, customers and employees through crisis situations such as identity theft.
When it comes to breaches and identity theft, we are all in this together. Just as government and business must do their part, as consumers we must do ours as well.