Tips: Protect Sensitive Personal Data

Hacking into the IT systems of banks and retail businesses has become a major activity for organized crime, putting consumers' money and personal information at increasingly greater risk.

Verizon's just-released 2010 Data Breach Investigations Report, based on a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the U.S. Secret Service, details steps that can be and are being taken by companies to safeguard their customers' financial data and personal information. However, consumers also need to play a more active role in this process. They can do so by following some simple, precautionary steps.

Cybercrime and corporate data breaches are being honed by growing numbers of organized criminals around the globe, as detailed in Verizon's data breach reports, which looked at more than 900 corporate data breaches involving more than 900 million compromised records. Perhaps the most vulnerable are the records of customers of financial institutions, retailers and hospitality businesses, which is where the majority of data breaches occurred, according to the report.

"Some consumers may feel they're powerless to protect themselves from data thefts involving large corporations," said Wade Baker, a Verizon security expert and the principal author of the report. "But there are any number of common-sense approaches that everyone can and should be taking to protect their identity and financial information."

Verizon, which provides high-level guidance and security services to help corporations around the world protect their corporate assets, also provides consumers with services to help protect them from cybercrime.

The steps recommended by Baker for consumers to help protect themselves include:

  • Use unique passwords for each Web site you visit, including your favorite shopping site and online bank account. This will limit any breach to just one website, should thieves obtain access to your password.
  • Check for security measures your bank or a retailer uses for online transactions. This will provide some assurance that the businesses are actively trying to prevent cybercriminals from hacking into your account information.
  • Thoroughly review all your credit card and bank statements when you receive them. This will help tip you off to unauthorized access to these accounts. Even a small unexplained charge or withdrawal should raise a red flag as thieves may, over time, steal small amounts from thousands of accounts, rather than cleaning out a single account, in hopes of going unnoticed longer. The theft of $4 from a thousand accounts is the same to the thief as $4,000 from a single account.
  • Monitor your credit history. If someone has stolen personal information, such as your Social Security number, it can be used to apply for credit cards in your name. You can check to see whether this has occurred by using one of a number of services that provide free access to your credit reports; or you can subscribe to a paid service that will monitor the credit reports for you.
  • If you have the option of using a credit or debit card, opt for the credit card. In general, credit cards offer more protection for consumers. Thieves who get your debit card information can use it to quickly empty your bank accounts.
  • If you must use your debit card, select the credit card option that doesn't require you to enter your PIN. Most machines will accept it this way.
  • Closely inspect an ATM machine before using it. Using a technique known as ATM skimming, thieves sometimes attach their own card-reading devices to a card-swiping slot on an ATM machine to steal your card information. If a machine appears to have been altered or the card-swiper appears to have been tampered with, use another machine.
  • In general, for any self-service kiosk where you swipe your card at the time of purchase, make sure that the machine has not been tampered with. If it has, take your business elsewhere, or complete the transaction later online or by phone.
  • Ask for a credit freeze. - If you suspect your personal information has been stolen, you can request the three credit bureaus freeze access to your credit file, which will prevent thieves from opening new accounts with your stolen information.
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