01/14/14 by Rennie Detore
Target made headlines around the holiday season, and it had nothing to do with how much they were charging for a flat screen TV or how many $25 gift cards you could earn just for buying a new iPod.
Instead, they were cards of a different ilk, namely the millions of debit and credit cards compromised as part of a data breach. This identity theft nightmare affected nearly 40 million customers who made purchases between November 27 and December 15, easily the busiest time of the year for shoppers.
To Target's credit, it reacted quickly and did its best to minimize the damage to not only its customers but their own image as a national retailer and renowned brand.
Even the best efforts of a highly regarded company like Target can't completely quell the concern of the average consumer, who probably thought twice and then a third time before they whipped out their debit or credit card in the days following this debacle. One can only assume that the negative press put a damper on the holiday sales for Target.
Today's customer isn't totally blinded by sales, "Black Friday" deals or clearance merchandise to the point that they forget that technology can turn ugly rather quickly. Hackers have a field day when it comers to identity theft, and Target just happens to be a larger scale heist in the grand scheme of stolen identity.
While experts in the field of identity theft continue to opine and debate how this Target breach occurred, shoppers around the world wonder what they can do on their end to ensure safety and security when it comes to their accounts.
Employing the services of company's like ProtectMyID or Lifelock would be a perfect starting point as both act as watch dogs for anything that appears out of the ordinary. Lifelock employs the services of 24-7 support and an online interface that is extremely easy to understand and use.
Then again, you must first agree that identity theft is a problem and that everyone, even you, is as much of a target as Target.
Greg Young is Director at Experian's ProtectMyID, a company that is well versed and lauded for its propensity for identification protection. This protection comes in the form of Surveillance Alerts, an immediate notification sent to you so you know the exact moment your identity is being used elsewhere.
Young is immersed in identity protection, but he understands that most consumers aren't. And that, according to him, is where the problems first arise.
"Stop thinking 'It can't happen to me' or that it's something that only happens to other people," Young suggests. "Apathy only benefits thieves; learn about identity theft, and how common it is."
Education and awareness rank remarkably high in terms of truly appreciating just how delicate your identity is; the general malaise mustered by consumers when it comes to haphazardly giving out social security numbers or leaving cell phones or tablets unprotected from a password standpoint is truly amazing.
It's especially surprising given that a modicum of common sense can curtail identity theft, such as only engaging in situations deemed safe as far as your personal data is concerned.
"Don't open email that seems strange or click on attachments from people you don't recognize," Young states. "Keep an eye on your credit report all year, and don't give out your social security number."
You'd also be surprised at the number of consumers who open up a credit card bill on any given day or month, but don't actually pay much attention to the activity. Often times, we're programmed to pay the minimum monthly payment, and rarely do much with pages two or three of that same statement, other than tossing them in the trash.
Meanwhile, identity thieves prey on those who are completely oblivious to their spending. Those same thieves aren't exactly opposed to digging through mounds and mounds of trash in the hopes that just one person tossed aside a credit card application, without properly disposing of it.
"Shred, shred, shred," Young decrees, when it comes to important mail or paperwork you discard.
"Thieves can take the most apparently benign information and piece it together to commit identity theft. Shred anything with personal information that you're going to throw away."
If you're still among the demographic that assumes that thieves digging through the trash is the proverbial wives tale or pure garbage, you're wrong. Granted, those behind the Target data breach may not have spent countless hours in dumpsters to secure the accounts of 40 million people, but thieves love to know as much about you as possible.
And, they don't care how they come upon that information.
"The more they (thieves) known about you, the easier it becomes for them to send you an email (and that email comes from documents) that looks legitimate because it refers to information they pull from your trash. That email contains software that allows them into your computer."
Beyond electronic devices, smart phones and tablets, the simple act of swiping a credit or debit card can wreak havoc on your bank account or credit, much the way it did for the millions of Target users still wading through wads of paperwork and phone numbers en route back to financial and fiscal freedom.
You'll hear a lot of opinions as far as whether using a debit card is safer than a credit card or vice versa. But, as Young points out, they both present the same negative repercussions when used without caution.
"If you want to use a debit card, make sure to keep a close eye on your bank statement and alert the bank immediately if you see any transaction that are not yours."
While that advice seems practical and prudent, you'd be stunned if you asked 10 random people how closely they check that bank statement mailed to their house every month. The majority might glance down at the papers, but most of the time it ends up ripped up (not shredded) and thrown in the garbage. Online banking typically is the more preferred means of checking in on your checking account, which is totally bankable only if you're banking on remembering to log out every time you use it.
If not, that's open season on your savings account.
The general perception is credit cards aren't as risky as debit cards since the former has no official ties to your checking account. But buyer beware, Young says, when it comes to credit cards and how using them too much might save your identity but demolish your debt.
"With credit scanners popping up in checkout lanes and gas pumps, credit cards are the safer bet," Young says cautiously. "If you abuse that credit line, you can pile up debt in a hurry."
In the end, the debate of debit vs. credit or social security numbers tossed around gratuitously gains plenty of momentum but pales in comparison to another tug of war: you and your judgment. Pertinent information, account numbers are for your eyes only, and should be guardedly gauged with your best interest in mind.
Consider the not so enjoyable alternative: Putting a huge bull's eye on your back for thieves to run amuck, while you're left to salvage or sift through the wreckage.
Just ask Target.
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