What to Do If Your Personal Data Has Been Exposed

24 April 2024

As more of our lives move online, the risk of our personal data being stolen or misused is increasing.

Personal data includes email addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, and even passwords. And large data breaches are happening more often.

In breaches, online criminals can use stolen data to target people with leading messages to get important information. Or they can take out loans and credit cards in their name.

FILE - A person works on a laptop on June 19, 2017, in North Andover, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
FILE - A person works on a laptop on June 19, 2017, in North Andover, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

Pay attention

Oren Arar is vice president of buyer privacy at online security company Malwarebytes. He said in the United States, there is no federal law enforcing companies or organizations to inform individuals of a data breach.

But he said it is common practice for them to do so and they often provide identity protection services.

The situation is better in the European Union. It requires companies and organizations to tell individuals of some kinds of breaches.

Even after a breach has been made public, cyber security experts say people need to pay attention.

Look out for emails or phone calls that say they are from the hacked organization or someone offering help. Contact the organization to see if they can confirm it.

Use official links, do not use any links or contact details in any messages you have been sent.

The Federal Trade Commission's website, identitytheft.gov, can tell you of identity theft victims. And it provides step-by-step advice with how to deal with different situations.

Change your password

If your data has been breached, the first thing you should do is change your password for the account involved.

Use a strong, long password including letters, numbers and symbols. And make sure to add a second level of security. That may include having an email or text sent to you. It could also mean using a device called a USB authenticator.

And if you have been using the same, or similar, password for different online accounts, make changes to it for each site. Hackers may take your password from one service and try it on your other accounts.

Arar said, "Just because your info shows up in a breach doesn't mean someone's stolen your identity or money. But it does mean you're at risk." He said it is wise to monitor your accounts, change any leaked passwords, set up a second security system, and have a separate email address for less important sign-ups.

Keep monitoring

It can be hard to follow all the different data breaches. But there are online services that you can look at to see if your email has been involved in a data breach.

Darren Guccione is CEO of Keeper Security. It makes password protection programming and offers a tool called BreachWatch. It keeps watch on the dark web to see if your personal information shows up there.

He said, "When public data breaches occur, cybercriminals gather as much data as possible so they can sell it on the dark web."

Tell your bank and credit agencies

If your credit card payment numbers are stolen, inform your bank or credit card company. Explain that your card is at risk of fraud and ask them to warn you of any suspicious activity.

They will likely give you a new card. Additionally, some banks and credit cards permit you to lock your account online.

You can also inform credit agencies. The three main companies are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. They can freeze your credit. That makes it hard to see your credit report and open a new account. Or they will ask lenders to contact you before lending money.

Take extra care

Online security experts warn that breaches involving a telephone company leave buyers at risk of having their phone numbers stolen. Thieves can use a stolen number to enter accounts that use that phone number as a second security.

To reduce that risk, telephone company AT&T advises creating a password that is needed to make large account changes. Also, delete emails containing personal information from your email account. That will help block possible damage by someone who gains entry to your email account.

I'm Gena Bennett. And I'm Gregory Stachel.

Kelvin Chan reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

breach – n. an occurrence in which someone is able to get into a place that is guarded or is able to get secret information.

hack – v. to secretly get access to the files on a computer or network in order to get information or cause damage

expose – v. to reveal

symbol – n. a letter, group of letters, character, or picture that is used instead of a word or group of words

monitor – v. to watch, observe, listen to, or check (something) for a special purpose over a period of time

occur – v. to happen

fraud – n. the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person