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Coping after the Target data breach

Despite data breaches, Americans remain wedded to using plastic for their purchases.
Despite data breaches, Americans remain wedded to using plastic for their purchases.Getty Images/File 2013

We have to face the truth: We’ve lost the battle to protect our identities. Once information from our credit and debit cards is transmitted, it’s out of our control. The latest high-profile data breaches confirm we are forever vulnerable.

In mid-December, Target said criminals had forced their way into its computer system and accessed customer credit and debit card information. Initially, Target said 40 million shoppers were affected.

Last week, the retailer said data for an additional 70 million customers — names, phone numbers, e-ail addresses — had been stolen.

With your information, thieves can do a lot of financial harm. They can access your bank account, open utility or mobile phone accounts, or get medical treatment using your health insurance.

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In a full-page ad, Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s chairman, noted: “I know this breach has had a real impact on you, creating a great deal of confusion and frustration. I share those feelings. You expect more from us and deserve better.”

Do the recent data breaches mean we should stop using plastic?

That won’t happen. Even though studies show that people tend to spend more when they use credit and debit, we are a nation addicted to these conveniences.

Target has promised customers whose information was compromised that they will not be liable for any fraudulent charges. It has partnered with Experian to offer one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft insurance to anyone who shopped at Target.

Yet even with credit monitoring, your information can be used by identity thieves.

The notices you get as part of a monitoring plan are after the fact, after something suspicious or fraudulent might have happened. You might catch something early, but you can’t totally prevent your information from being used to commit identity theft.

Still, we have to take whatever precautions we can. In the case of Target, go ahead and register. Go to creditmonitoring.target.com before April 23. You will receive an activation code that then must be redeemed by April 30. I thought it was ironic that as part of the registration process, I have to provide my name, e-mail, address and Social Security number, all to verify my identity.

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Then there is this promise, that “the process of sending and receiving your information is encrypted. . . . This technology helps ensure that your credit card and other sensitive information are protected.”

Right.

But here’s an example of why you need to take steps to protect yourself. I got a call from someone claiming he could help insure me against hackers. Since I frequently shop at Target and did so during the period of the data breach, I wondered if the very suspicious call was the result of that incident. The caller tried to get me to divulge personal information. He provided some convoluted explanation about how he got my information. I listened for a bit and then told him I believed he was trying to scam me and hung up.

If you want to complain about identity theft, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission.

I’ve become paranoid about my personal information. My husband and I have set up systems under which we get regular text and e-mail alerts about our credit cards and bank accounts. I call my credit card lender to let it know we’re going on vacation, and where. Otherwise, charges may not go through.

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Knowing that your data can’t be fully protected, be as vigilant as possible. Be your own privacy cop. Scrutinize your credit and debit card statements. And given the breaches that have happened and will happen, don’t trust until you’ve verified anything and everything that anyone says.