How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of the Next Big Box Security Breach

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It seems like every fews weeks there's a new report of a big box chain identity breach. Millions of Americans have been victimized at this point and you don’t want to be one of them. But there are ways to protect yourself. Unless you want to give up credit cards or shopping at big box stores, read on to learn what you can do to protect yourself without sacrificing the convenience of either.

Use a Credit Card, Not a Debit Card

Steven J. Weisman, a professor at Boston's Bentley University and the webmaster of Scamicide.com, points out that most people think debit cards are safer, but nothing could be further from the truth.

"If your debit card is stolen in a hack you don't have nearly the same protections you do for a credit card," he says. Whereas nearly every credit card company has a "zero liability" policy, banks tend to increase your liability the longer it takes you to report the breach. In a worst-case scenario, using a debit card means you can end up being on the hook for every last cent fraudulently spent from your account.

Use a Single Credit Card

Another tip Weisman relates is using a single credit card for big box purchases and a single credit card for online purchases. The reason being, if there is a breach, you can immediately cancel the card in question. Compare this to using multiple cards. Not only might you have to cancel multiple cards, but you might not even know what cards you should be canceling. Having specific cards directed to specific purposes is a simple way you can track your purchases and insulate yourself from cyberattacks. It's a win all around.

Monitor Your Credit Report

Weisman notes that most of the time, you're going to be able to find out you've been a victim before the breach even hits the news.

"The pattern is that the retailers aren't the first place to find out about the breach," he says. On the contrary, it's generally a third-party contractor who finds out first because of all the fraud. It's easier than ever to monitor your credit report. In fact, many services now allow you to monitor your own credit report free of charge. Check it out regularly, and you’ll see problems before anyone else.

Maintain Proper Internet Security

Peter Toren, a partner with Weisbrod, Matteis and Copley and a former prosecutor in computer crimes with the Justice Department, points out that criminals getting your credit card information isn't that bad in and of itself.

"Credit card companies go out of their way to work with you," says Toren. "It's a pain, but it's not the end of the world." For the most part, it's a problem that can be solved with a single phone call.

The problem is when hackers and scam artists get your personal information. That's when they can really start to wreak havoc on your credit. When you give out your personal information to stores, hackers are then able to create a picture of who you are or even hack your online accounts. It's surprising how few data points are needed to steal your identity. This is why so many online scams try to get seemingly innocuous pieces of information about who you are.

"Don't give a company any more information than they need for you to make a purchase," Toren said.

Toren urges people to exercise basic Internet security: strong passwords that never get reused. That way, even if a hacker is able to get into one account, he won’t be able to get into any others. "Even if they get your credit card number, the impact is going to be pretty limited," Toren says.

Weisman says that security is always a matter of catching up with what hackers are doing.

"Scam artists are the only criminals we call 'artists,'" he says. "They're not just selling credit card numbers; they're selling your personal information."

In fact, many identity brokers have gotten smarter, selling your personal information only to people local to you. After all, a fraudulent purchase in your hometown won’t raise the same red flags that one in Singapore would.

"It's up to you to be vigilant and look at your own statements and credit reports," says Weisman.

--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet

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