What to Do When You Get a Data Breach Letter … or Think You’re Part of a Breach

A day doesn’t go by when we don’t read news of a data breach at a major company, healthcare facility or financial institution. What should you do when a data breach notification letter lands in your mailbox? The best advice: Don’t panic. Just pay attention. 

Whether the trouble starts with a pilfered laptop or an insidious cyberattack, a breach of personal electronic data triggers mandatory notification laws in nearly all U.S. states and territories. If you haven’t received such a notice already, chances are, you will. 

But, receiving a breach letter doesn’t mean you’ll become a victim. It means something’s happened that could put you at risk. Faced with a breach notice, most people do one of two things—both wrong. They ignore it and throw it away or they freak out and start closing accounts. Do this instead:

  1. Read the notice carefully to learn what information may have been exposed and how. (Keep the notice in case you ever need to prove that your data was compromised through no fault of your own.) 
  1. Review the breached account. Identify what information it contained and what was compromised. Look for unauthorized activity, such as a change in address or telephone number.
  1. Know exactly what’s at risk. If it’s debit or credit card numbers only, there’s a good chance someone will try to use them. On the upside, exposure is limited and, if your bank thinks the risk is high, it will automatically reissue new cards (effectively shutting down the identity thief). Degree of risk gets stickier when data like Social Security numbers, birth dates, and addresses are stolen. This information has a long shelf life and can be traded internationally among organized criminals. It’s valuable because, unlike a single credit card number, it can spawn dozens of new accounts. While it’s less likely to be used than a single stolen credit card number (which requires much less time and work), potential damage to your good name is greater.
  1. If you’re offered a year of free credit monitoring, take it.
  1. Pay extra attention to your account and billing statements. Check for charges that aren’t yours.
  1. Check your credit report and watch for other fraud. After about 30 days (long enough for fraudulent activity to show up), log on to annualcreditreport.com to get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Look for any unusual activity. Investigate suspicious activity and stay on top of it until the matter is resolved. Also, look for signs of fraud in your medical files, on your Social Security statement, in insurance claims, or in public records.
  1. Change all user access credentials. If you use the same passwords for other financial institutions, change them. Watch financial statements—on paper and online—for unauthorized transactions. Be aware of potential email, phone and snail-mail scams. Enable text and email alerts when possible.
  1. Notify existing creditors of the breach. Consider canceling your cards and getting new ones. Take advantage of issuers’ services that alert you to unusual transactions.
  1. Place a fraud alert on your credit file. An alert placed with any one of the three major credit bureaus signals to potential creditors that you could be a victim of identity theft.

Patricia Kemp
Patricia Kemp