(BPT) - You've seen it in the headlines. Hundreds of data breaches, often at large corporations, happen every year - and consumers suffer the consequences.
Data breaches have become a constant reality of a connected world. Although many people choose to ignore the problem, you can take steps to defend yourself.
What is a data breach?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a data breach 'includes the loss of control, compromise, unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized acquisition, access for an unauthorized purpose or other unauthorized access, to data, whether physical or electronic.'
In other words, a breach occurs when a corporation, organization or institution is intentionally hacked or robbed, or inadvertently exposes information through a clerical or technical error. Data breaches aren't always due to malicious attacks. Sometimes they're the result of a mistake, but the consequences are still grave.
When a data breach occurs, confidential information, such as your Social Security number, bank account details, credit card numbers, personal health information or even wireless phone and utilities accounts are released.
In 2011, there were 855 data breach incidents, according to '2012 Data Breach Investigations Report' from Verizon Enterprise. In the past, corporations like Sony and Citibank have had the misfortune of experiencing such a crime. The real misfortune, however, is the victimization of the consumer.
Why should you care?
The odds are you'll be part of a breach sooner or later. The Verizon 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report cites 174 million compromised records in 2011.
Unfortunately, it's completely out of your hands. Let's say you do everything right on your end: shred documents, use secure websites, etc. You're still only as safe as your weakest link.
That weak link could be anywhere your personal information resides - at your doctor's office, employer, bank, favorite restaurant or even the place you got your hair cut last week. You may be doing a lot right, but what about everyone else?
The worst part is that victims of data breaches often become victims of identity fraud. According to a study done by Javelin Strategy and Research, 'Data shows that consumers who received breach notifications in 2012 had a substantially higher risk of identity fraud - over 4 times higher - than those who didn't receive these notifications.'
In addition, the Verizon 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report also shows that only eight percent of victims discover their own breaches. So 92 percent learn about it from a third party, but that can take weeks or months. The longer your information is out there undetected, the higher your risk for fraud.
If you do receive a letter, your information is out there for good. Even if you don't experience fraud immediately, you could later - several months or even years later. That's why it's important to take privacy seriously.
What can you do?
While companies continue to boost security in order to respond to this threat, here are a couple of ways you can strengthen your defense against data breaches.
* Do not provide your Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary - simply ask if it's required.
* Never use your name, a child's or pet's name in your passwords.
* Create passwords with upper and lower case letters, non-sequential numbers and symbols. Change them at least quarterly.
* Do not use the same password for multiple accounts; this will minimize the damage in case your information is compromised.
* Review your bank statements monthly and your credit reports annually. Even if you haven't received a notification letter, you could already be a breach victim.
Above all, it's important to stay cautious. Data breaches might be an inevitable consequence of a connected, wireless culture, but that doesn't mean you should become complacent.
For more comprehensive protection from fraud, hire an identity theft protection service like LifeLock to monitor your personal information for misuse or exposure. For more information, visit LifeLock.com or call 1-800-LifeLock.