What Is Data Theft?

Katelyn Michaud
data thief

There were over 450 data breaches in the United States that led to nearly 12.7 million records to be exposed in 2016. Data theft is a growing problem in the United States and around the globe. While it's impossible to innoculate yourself completely from data theft, you can take steps today to protect yourself and your family from these potentially harmful attacks.

What Is It?

Data theft is the act of stealing digital information stored on computers, servers, or electronic devices of an unknown victim with the intent to compromise privacy or obtain confidential information. Information can include anything from financial information, like credit card numbers or bank accounts, to personal information, like social security numbers, drivers license numbers, and health records. Once only the problem of large businesses and organizations, data theft is a growing problem for everyday computer users.

Company Data Breaches

A majority of data theft occurs through company data breaches. Ponemon Institute report found that 43 percent of all companies within the United States had at least one data breach in 2013. Some data breaches are due to hackers, but about 80 percent of all data breaches occur because of employee negligence.

Businesses and organizations are often the target of data theft, but it is the customers and clients that are the victim. For example, in 2014 over 56 million people across the United States had their credit card information stolen at Home Depot. A similar issue happened the year before at Target. This information was then sold on the "Darknet" where cyber-criminals used the information to buy goods online unbeknownst to most victims.

How Does Data Theft Happen?

Data theft occurs through a variety of means. Most often, it happens because someone hacked into a computer system to steal sensitive information, such as your credit card or personal information, or an employee at a company mishandled the information. With an increasingly digital world, hundreds of different businesses and organizations hold your personal information, such as your social security number, mailing address, birthdate, and bank account information.

Even with new technological advances, cyber-criminals are able to adapt and find ways to hack into systems to steal data, especially retail companies that house payment information. Most companies have data breach plans in place, but many employees don't know they exist or are unsure the plans will work. It is extremely important that all companies that handle sensitive data educate and train employees on how to handle sensitive information.

What To Do If Your Are A Victim

Unfortunately, data breaches can go unnoticed for a long time. Even if the breaches are identified quickly, cyber-criminals have probably already sold your sensitive information to other criminals. Most states require companies who have been breached to notify potential victims of the data breach. Depending on the type and severity of the data breach, companies may offer free credit monitoring or other tools to help protect your information further.

If you believe that your credit or debit card information has been stolen through a data breach, contact your credit card company or bank immediately to cancel the card. Additionally, activate an "initiate fraud alert" for 90 days to notify lenders they need to take extra verification steps before extending credit. You may also need to file an identify theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your local police. FTC reports can be completed online.

How to Protect Yourself

data protection key

Data theft is a real problem and it can happen to anybody. While there is no way to completely prevent data theft from happening, there are multiple steps you can take today to limit your risk.

  • Pay using cash instead of credit or debit cards.
  • Use a credit or debit card with pin-and-chip technology.
  • Protect your computer from viruses and malware by installing, using, and updating antivirus and anti-spyware software on all your computers and electronic devices.
  • Keep all operating systems and software programs up to date by regularly installing updates to security, web browsers, operating systems, and software programs as soon as they become available.
  • Don't open questionable emails or email attachments as they could be phishing emails.
  • Regularly check your credit card statements and credit report for unauthorized charges and new credit lines.
  • Use a strong, unique password for all websites that require logins. Regularly change these, especially if an account password has been compromised in a data breach.
  • Use only secure Wi-Fi connections.
  • Properly dispose of documents containing sensitive information through shredding paper and removing all data from electronic devices.
  • Secure your network and internet connection through a firewall and secure password.
  • If you run a business that holds sensitive information, ensure your employees are properly trained in handling the data and employees understand the company's policies in regarding to sharing sensitive information.

Data Theft Isn't Going Away

Unfortunately data theft isn't going away any time soon. In fact, every year the number of data breaches increases. It is important to take steps to protect yourself from data theft. Start by using the internet safely and know what to do if you are a victim of a major data breach. By being proactive today, you can reduce your risk of being a victim of data theft.

What Is Data Theft?