The Consequences of a Data Breach: How to Prevent the Loss of Personally Identifiable Information

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A data breach can have severe consequences for both individuals and organizations. When a data breach occurs, sensitive information such as personally identifiable information (PII) can be exposed, leading to identity theft, financial fraud, and damage to reputation. According to a survey by the Identity Theft Resource Center, 43.8% of data breaches in 2020 involved personally identifiable information (PII). In this blog post, we’ll explore the consequences of a data breach and discuss how to prevent the loss of PII.

A survey by Accenture found that 60% of consumers are concerned that fraudulent activities will lead to a compromise of their PII. And 53% worry about the security of their personally identifiable information when sharing it with organizations.

One of the most significant consequences of a data breach is identity theft. When data breaches expose customers’ PII, hackers can use it to impersonate individuals and commit fraud. Fraud can include opening credit cards or bank accounts in someone else’s name, taking out loans, or even filing taxes using someone else’s information. Watch how a hacker gains access to PII in a new animated series, Kitetoons, by Kiteworks.

To fully appreciate the severity of a data breach and its potential impact on victims, we need a better understanding of personally identifiable information. 

Here is a list (with examples) of personally identifiable information (PII):

  1. Full Name: This could include first, maiden, and/or last name. For example, John Smith has only first and last names. The more complete information a hacker has, e.g., a full name, the more damage they can inflict. 
  1. Email Address: An email address has specific characteristics; the first part is the username, and the last part after the @ sign is the domain information. A hacker can use this information to infiltrate customer accounts, systems, and applications.
  2. Physical Address: The mailing address for your residence, e.g., 123 Main Street, Anytown, USA. It includes street name, house number, town information, and even the country of residency.
  3. Phone Number: Typically, your cellphone number, along with country code, e.g., +1555-555-1212. A hacker can use your cell phone number to commit smishing attacks, baiting victims to click on a malicious link they receive via text.
  4. Date of Birth: Day, month, and year you were born. A hacker can use your date of birth to open fraudulent accounts.
  5. Social Security Number: Nine-digit number of your SSN, e.g., 123-45-6789. A hacker can utilize your Social Security number for a number of fraudulent activities.
  6. Passport Number: Standard modern-age passport number starting with a letter, e.g., A12345678. A hacker can leverage your passport number to create fraudulent accounts.
  7. Driver’s License Number: Typically, a nine-digit sequence, e.g., 123456789. A hacker can utilize your driver’s license number to open fraudulent accounts.
  8. Financial Account Information: Credit card number, e.g., 4111 1111 1111 1111, or bank account number, e.g., 12345612345612. A hacker can use these and other financial account information to withdraw or transfer money and other assets out of your accounts.
  9. Medical information: Health records, medical history, and other protected health information (PHI).
  10. Employment Information: For example, job title: Software Engineer; salary: $100,000
  11. Educational Information: Your college transcripts, grades, etc.
  12. Biometric Data: Fingerprints, DNA
  13. Passwords: Specific passwords for access to your systems and applications. A password example is “qwerty123.” A hacker can use your passwords to install ransomware into critical business systems like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Health Information Technology (HIT), and others.
  14. I.P. Address: Essentially a phone number for your laptop or other device, separated by dots, e.g., 123.456.789.012.

This is not an exhaustive list but rather a general overview of the types of information that could be considered PII. It’s essential to protect this information, as hackers can use it to identify, track, impersonate, or defraud individuals.

In addition to the financial consequences of identity theft, a data breach can damage an individual’s reputation. Suppose sensitive information such as medical records or financial documents are exposed. This sensitive information, if leaked, can have an embarrassing and damaging effect on an individual’s reputation.

There are financial implications, too. A study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that 14.4 million U.S. consumers were victims of identity fraud in 2018, resulting in a total financial loss of $16.8 billion.

A data breach can have serious financial consequences for organizations as well. In addition to the cost of identifying and remediating the source of the breach, an organization must also address the potential loss of customer trust and a decline in stock price.

So, what can prevent the loss of PII in a data breach? Here are a few steps individuals and organizations can take:

1) A first-rate antivirus and firewall solution: Investing in strong antivirus and firewall capabilities can help prevent malicious software from infecting the systems, applications, and devices that hold your organization’s sensitive information.

Example: Choose antivirus software from a reputable company, such as Kaspersky or McAfee, and enable your device’s firewall to help protect against cyber threats.

2) Be cautious when sharing PII online: Only share your PII with trusted sources and be careful about the information you post on social media.

Example: Only share your Social Security number or financial account information with trusted partners like accountants and financial planners (e.g., those individuals who have a legitimate need for the information).

By following these steps, you can help prevent a data breach and subsequent loss of PII. While it’s impossible to eliminate the risk of a data breach entirely, taking proactive steps to protect your sensitive information can go a long way in minimizing the consequences.

In conclusion, the consequences of a data breach can be severe for both individuals and organizations. When sensitive information such as personally identifiable information (PII) is exposed, it can lead to identity theft, financial fraud, and reputational damage.

It’s essential also to be aware of the signs of a data breach and take immediate action if you suspect your information is exposed. There are thankfully several steps you can take to mitigate the risk of a data breach. It’s crucial, for example, to use strong passwords and enable two-factor authentication.

Also, you can keep software and security protocols up to date and use a reputable antivirus and firewall. Finally, be cautious when sharing PII online, avoiding public Wi-Fi networks found in airports and coffee shops. Taking these and other proactive steps and remaining ever vigilant can help minimize the consequences of a data breach and protect your PII.

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