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Think you've been involved in a data breach? In this guide, we help you find out where and when, and we list the steps you should take next.
Data breaches are security incidents we now hear about every day. They strike every industry, every sector, and every country. Breach victims can be individuals, small businesses, non-profits, or Fortune 500 companies.
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IBM estimates that the average cost of a data breach in 2022 for companies was $4.35 million, with 83% of organizations experiencing one or more security incidents.
However, all the news coverage of the millions of dollars that corporations spend -- to repair damaged systems, perform cyber forensics, improve defenses, and deal with the legal ramifications of a data breach -- fails to convey the cost felt by individual customers involved. And we're not talking only about financial costs.
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For individuals, the damage can be more personal than figures on a balance sheet. And while financial costs may be a factor, individual victims may face targeted phishing campaigns, social engineering schemes, identity theft, and damage to credit. They may also experience anxiety or fear over how their leaked data will be used now, and in the future.
Here's how data breaches occur, how they can impact you, and what you can do in the aftermath.
Typically, your service provider will contact you through email or letters, explaining that your information has been compromised.
However, companies may take weeks or months to contact you -- if they contact you at all. Unfortunately, many organizations will still prioritize secrecy over consumer protection in a bid to hush up incidents and protect their reputations.
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Therefore, it is up to you to keep an eye on the news for any recently disclosed data breaches.
Recent reported data breaches include MCNA Dental, Dish Network, PharMerica, and Capita.
Have I Been Pwned, operated by security expert Troy Hunt, is the first resource you should use to find out what data breaches you have been involved in and how extensively your data has been leaked.
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The search engine allows you to search either by your email address or phone number and will flag any breaches containing your data when they happen by cross-checking billions of leaked records added to the Have I Been Pwned database.
If you type in your details and are rewarded with a green screen, congratulations, you haven't been involved in any notable data security incidents. However, if your data has been compromised, you will see a screen (shown below) telling you which breaches have impacted you.
If you use a password manager, it may offer breach-monitoring services that will alert you when your passwords are exposed during a data breach. Password managers can periodically check for any evidence of your password and email combinations ending up posted online or being made available on the dark web, and will alert you to any changes you should be made aware of.
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Should you become embroiled in a security incident, check where the compromised password is in use. You should always use different and strong, complex passwords to secure your accounts (another area a password manager can help), and this is why: once one service is compromised, the same password and user combination could lead to an exposed account elsewhere.
Recycled credentials leaked online from company A could be used to access your account from company B, for example.
Credit monitoring services, including Experian and LifeLock, are beginning to integrate data breach monitoring, too, as these situations can result in identity theft -- a criminal act that can severely impact your credit reports and scores. However, unless you have notifications enabled, you may not be warned of any changes unless you have logged in or you have checked your email.
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Many credit agencies now also offer data breach monitors on a free or paid plan basis. If a set of credentials belonging to you are found in a new data leak, these organizations will tell you -- allowing you to take action quickly.
Whether or not financial information is involved, if enough personal data is available online, ID theft and fraud are still risks.
Unfortunately, credit monitoring services are now necessary to be alerted to suspicious activity that could place your reputation, finances, and creditworthiness at risk. However, even if you aren't willing to pay for a premium subscription, you should still consider signing up for a free option.
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If your payment card details, bank accounts, or other digital financial services have been compromised, call the provider immediately (or freeze your cards using the mobile app, if your app has that feature). You must also inform your bank or financial services provider so they can be on the lookout for suspicious and fraudulent transactions.
What you do next depends on the severity and type of data breach. The likelihood is that you have already had your personally identifiable information (PII) leaked in some form or another online regarding basic details -- such as your name and email address. In this scenario, there is not much you can do.
However, if your online account details have been compromised, whether or not passwords are hashed, you should change them immediately. In addition, if you are guilty (as many of us are) of reusing password combinations across different platforms and services, you should change them immediately.
It's good practice, in any case, to change your online credentials at least every three to six months. Try to improve them with complex combinations. If you're not certain you can remember them, opt for a password manager.
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Whenever you can, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) -- especially after you've become a victim of a data breach.
Two-factor authentication implements a second layer of security on your accounts, so if your credentials have been leaked, attackers would also need access to your email account or handset to grab the verification code required to access your account. Granted, 2FA is not foolproof, but it's better than relying purely on a compromised password to protect your privacy.
Consider using a physical security key for any central "hub" accounts, such as your Gmail or Microsoft email address.
A security key is one of the most reliable security options we have today. It might seem backward to use a physical device to secure an online account, but even if an attacker manages to steal credentials, they are denied access without the physical key when they attempt to log in from a new device.
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For example, Google's Advanced Protection Program requires members to use a physical key. This used to be quite an expensive investment, so it doesn't hurt that prices have dropped in recent years.
Security keys can take some time to set up, although the process is more streamlined than it used to be. As a tip, I would recommend purchasing a pair of keys so one lives on your desk -- or is with you when you're traveling -- and one stays firmly in a safe place as a backup.
Many vendors are now exploring passwordless authentication. Google announced the implementation of passwordless support for FIDO sign-in standards in Android and Chrome. Apple and Microsoft intend to follow suit.
According to IBM, the most common initial attack vector cyberattackers use to break into a company's network is the use of compromised credentials.
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These credentials can include account usernames and passwords that are leaked online, stolen in a separate security incident, or obtained through brute-force attacks, in which automatic scripts try out different combinations to crack easy-to-guess passwords.
Other potential attack methods are:
If you've been involved in a data breach as a user or customer, your records may have also been exposed, stolen, or leaked online.
Your personally identifiable information, including your name, physical address, email address, work history, telephone number, gender, and copies of documents including passports and driving licenses, can all be used to conduct identity theft.
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ID theft is when someone uses your information without permission to pretend to be you. They may use your identity or financial data to conduct fraud and commit crimes. This can include tax fraud (such as refunds sent to a cybercriminal's account rather than yours), opening up lines of credit and loans in your name, medical fraud, and making fraudulent purchases online.
Criminals may also telephone a company you use, such as a telecoms provider, and pretend to be you to dupe customer representatives into revealing information or making changes to a service, such as in the case of SIM-swapping attacks.
These scenarios can impact your credit score, make you financially responsible for a loan or payment you didn't agree to, and lead to serious stress and anxiety in cleaning up your name and finances. As cybercrime is global problem, it can be extremely difficult for law enforcement to prosecute the perpetrators.
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Blackmail, too, can be a factor. When extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison experienced a data breach in 2015, some users were contacted by cybercriminals threatening to tell their partners, friends, and colleagues about their activities unless they were paid.
The attacker may conduct surveillance first, mapping a network to find the most valuable resources or to discover potential pathways to jump into other systems.
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The majority of data breaches are financially motivated. Attackers may deploy ransomware to blackmail their victims into paying up to regain their access to the network. In so-called "double-extortion" tactics, hacking groups may first steal confidential information and then threaten to leak it online.
Alternatively, some may grab and go, stealing the intellectual property they came for and then erasing their tracks. Others may test their access point and sell it to other cyberattackers via the dark web.
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In some cases, network intrusions are for one reason alone: to disrupt services and damage a company.
Some miscreants download data and make these data dumps freely available online, posting them to resources such as Pastebin.
The Internet as a system can be divided into three layers: the clear web, the deep web, and the dark web.
The terms dark web and deep web often are used interchangeably.
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In this world, data is cheap and unnecessarily collected in bulk by companies that don't protect it effectively or govern themselves in data collection practices well. When a breach occurs, you are most often just offered a year or so of free credit monitoring.
Unfortunately, it is up to individuals to deal with the fallout; knowing you've been involved in a data breach is half the battle. Protecting yourself by maintaining adequate account security, changing your passwords frequently, and being on alert for suspicious activities are ways you can mitigate the damage these frequent security incidents can cause.