Identity theft is growing, and it’s not just your credit and debit card numbers you have to worry about. Hackers hit the jackpot when they cracked the network at the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management and accessed Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other personal information on more than 4 million federal workers. A second OPM breach, announced in June, involved applicants for security clearances who had revealed intimate details about their lives. That incident brings the total number of people affected to about 22 million.
In January, health insurers Anthem and Premera Blue Cross discovered that Social Security numbers, dates of birth and insurance ID numbers of tens of millions of customers might have been stolen. Not long after tax-filing season came to a close, the IRS announced that thieves had used stolen data to log in to IRS.gov and access more than 100,000 taxpayer accounts to generate bogus refunds.
All of those breaches came to light in just the first six months of 2015. In 2014, the Identity Theft Resource Center tallied a record-breaking 783 breaches that exposed more than 85 million records. Among them were debit and credit card numbers of customers of Home Depot, Neiman Marcus and Dairy Queen, as well as the names, mailing addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers of JPMorgan Chase clients. All told, 76 million households were affected.
To add insult to injury, you may not even know your data has been hacked. In most cases, the gap between a breach and the attacked organization’s discovery of it is months or even years. Still more time passes before the victims are notified, as the company launches an investigation and braces for bad publicity.
Watch Your Back
The widespread potential for identity theft means that we’ll have to remain vigilant—probably indefinitely. Along with death and taxes, breaches have become “the third certainty of life,” says Adam Levin, chairman and cofounder of Identity Theft 911 and Credit.com. You can blame the tidal wave of data thefts on the Internet revolution and the transition from paper to digital records. Hacking into a server from a remote location is a snap.