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73% of Americans fear they've had data stolen: Do 3 'big things well' after a breach, expert says

"You don't have to be perfect," but there are certain steps you can take to keep your data safe.

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Most consumers know what to do if their personal or financial data is compromised online, but most of those who have been the victim of a cyber hack are choosing to do nothing. Nearly three-quarters, 73%, of respondents in an Identity Theft Resource Center poll believe their sensitive information has been exposed by a breach and 72% actually received a data breach notification letter. Yet few take "strong" action to protect themselves, the survey found, and 16% say they took no action after a breach.

"Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to respond. We're already busy, having our data stolen sounds scary, and we feel powerless against these forces out of our control," says Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com. "Some people just throw up their hands and say, 'It's impossible to be perfect, so why bother?' This is why I suggest doing the big things well."

While you may not be able to ward off every scammer, there are certain measures you can take to secure your data and money. Here are three big steps that can help keep you safe.

1. 'Be especially vigilant' about passwords

Part of the reason some consumers feel jaded about protecting their data is because it can be exhausting. More than half of the poll takers say it's too hard to keep up with all their credentials. Just 15% say they use unique passwords for each of their accounts. Of those who've been hacked, only 48% changed their passwords on the breached account.

"If your data has been compromised, you should change your password on that account, and ideally on any other accounts that share the same password," Rossman says. "When you reuse passwords, this can compound an identity theft problem" or open you up to new attacks.

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You're probably OK to reuse some logins, adds Rossman, but make sure that important accounts have strong, unique passwords: "Be especially vigilant about sensitive accounts such as bank accounts and your email."

Try using a password manager like LastPass or Dashlane to track your different logins, he suggests. Both services generate passwords to keep your accounts protected.

2. Freeze your credit 'as soon as possible' 

If certain kinds of information were compromised in a breach, namely, your Social Security number, a criminal could leverage it to open new lines of credit in your name. But just 3% of the ITRC respondents froze their credit after a breach.

Freezing your card can be a smart way to lock down your data with the three major bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. It's free and stops anyone from opening up new accounts in your name. That includes you – you'll need to temporarily lift the freeze if you want to open up a new credit card or refinance your mortgage, for example. 

"I'm a big fan of credit freezes, and I'd suggest placing one as soon as possible," if you need to, says Rossman. While a "freeze won't prevent payment fraud on your existing credit or debit cards … it should prevent criminals from opening new financial accounts in your name."

Be especially vigilant about sensitive accounts such as bank accounts and your email.
Ted Rossman
CreditCards.com

3. Don't become complacent with your data

Some consumers have given up the fight to protect their info, with 26% saying they did nothing after a hack because their "data is already out there." Another 29% thought the organizations responsible for protecting their data would address the issue for them.

The ultimate responsibility for keeping your data safe falls on you, so it's important to be vigilant. "The faster you catch fraud, the less likely it will cause a problem for you," Charles H. Thomas III, a certified financial planner and founder of Intrepid Eagle Finance in South Carolina, previously told Grow. "If you see a charge that doesn't seem right, contact the issuer right away. There's never a reason you have to wait to report a suspect charge, even a small one."

You don't have to be perfect, adds Rossman, "but you should do things like freeze your credit and review financial statements regularly. Those free, simple steps represent most of the battle."

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