Identity theft risk: Data breaches at businesses increase

The Identity Theft Resource Center has released its most recent figures on data breaches at businesses, and they're not pretty. 2008 isn't even close to being over, and the number of reported breaches has already surpassed the total for 2007, at 446.

A data breach is simply a situation at a business in which unauthorized outside people get access to computerized confidential information. What are they looking for? Usually credit card numbers and personal data that can be used to commit identity theft.

The 446 data breaches reported here are simply a tabulation of each report of a business experiencing a data breach. They say nothing about the number of records or people exposed in each breach, which can be in the millions. The larger the number of records compromised, the more likely you are to hear about it on the news.

What can consumers do to protect themselves? Don't count on businesses to protect your data. Unfortunately, even the best data security can still fail, so your private information is not always safe.
  • Check your credit report regularly to make sure that there are no new accounts that you didn't personally open. Follow up on questionable items on your report immediately.
  • Carefully look at all bank statements and credit card statements to make sure there aren't transactions you didn't authorize. Remember that you could get an unauthorized charge from a restaurant or store you've been at if someone stole their data, so make sure all charges were really made by you, even if you recognize the merchant's name.
  • Reduce your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft by putting a freeze on your credit report. It will make your life harder if you're trying to get credit, but it will also help stop identity thieves.
  • Don't waste your money on "credit monitoring" services or "identity theft protection." They offer very little value for your money, and you're better off doing the three simple steps above to protect yourself.
Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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