"Many of the cyber security experts agree that the bad guys do have a lot of data," says Mustaque Ahamad, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology's Information Security Center. "But for them to actually profit from that is a little harder than stealing it."
In other words, while there's a decent chance that some of your personal data are already in the hands of some unsavory character -- perhaps your email and home address were stolen during the Zappos breach, or maybe you had some information leak during the attack on Sony's PlayStation Network -- that information is insufficient on its own to do you any real financial damage. And it's up to you to keep it that way.
Obviously, if you've been informed of a specific leak you may need to take immediate action. When email addresses and passwords were stolen from Zappos earlier this month, the company advised customers to change the password on any site where they used the same email and password combination.
But even if you haven't been alerted about a specific incident that may affect you, you should still operate under the assumption someone has at least some of your personal data, and there are certain best-practices you should follow to make sure hackers can't build on that info to make the jump from data theft to financial and identity theft.Be vigilant with email. A hacker with your email address can always try what's known as phishing: Sending you an email in the hopes of deceiving you into downloading malware, giving up valuable personal information or visiting a malicious site. Usually these emails are easy to spot. But a hacker who has your email address, name, mailing address and other personally identifying information can craft a much more convincing scam, a practice known as spear-phishing. That's been the concern in the various data breaches we've seen during the past year, some of which even involved the leak of the last four digits of customers' credit cards. While those numbers are useless on their own, sending someone an email containing that sort of intimate information lends the scammer an air of credibility and greatly increases his or her chances of success.
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