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Data hackers raising security concerns
Consumers advised to keep watch on accounts
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5 tips to protect yourself

  • Review your credit card and bank statements monthly. If you find anything suspicious, report it to the financial institution immediately. 
  • If you think an account is compromised, request it be closed and that you be issued replacement cards with new account and PIN numbers. 
  • Ask if there have been any requests to change the address or receive replacement credit cards for your account. 
  • Instruct the card issuer not to honor any requests regarding your card without your written authorization. 
  • Ask for a notice when charges over a certain amount are made or when your balance reaches a certain level.

Source: Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection

Technology has simplified the way we pay, but also given way to computer-savvy identity thieves.

A recent barrage of personal information data breaches — most notably retail giant Target during the holiday season — also has prompted finance and consumer groups to alert people about how they can better protect themselves.

“Even if you’re not sure that your accounts have been affected, you can do a few things to protect your accounts, your money and your credit reputation,” the Federal Trade Commission stated in a consumer protection post on its website last month.

The agency advised consumers to review credit card and bank account statements often, check credit reports every few months and delete email or text messages that ask you to confirm or provide personal information.

“Banks do not ask for such information through emails and links embedded in emails,” stated a recent press release from the Georgia Bankers Association.

“There are some common sense things people can do to reduce the likelihood that your data will be compromised,” said David M. Oliver, the group’s senior vice president of communications and marketing.

“Unfortunately, the bad guys are pretty resourceful. If they would only pour their time and effort into productive things instead of stealing money, we’d have a greater society.”

He agreed with the FTC tip that consumers should regularly check their account information.

“The great thing about technology is you have an ability to do that in a greater way than ever before,” Oliver said. “Depending on who you bank with, you can set alerts that will send you an email when a card is used or when a balance threshold (is reached) or dollar amount of a transaction takes place.”

Speaking to a Senate committee this week, Target Chief Financial Officer John Mulligan disclosed in written testimony that malicious software enabling hackers to steal information from credit and debit cards from Nov. 27 to Dec. 15 was later found on 25 additional checkout machines and continued to collect shoppers’ information for three more days.

Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus and White Lodging, which operates about 170 hotels across the United States, including Marriott, also have announced attacks.

The disturbing trend has spurred Congress to take notice, with senators beginning efforts to tighten data-breach notification requirements, increase enforcement and improve technology to prevent future security lapses.

“Any time Americans feel their privacy has been violated, Congress absolutely needs to find a way to address it,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “Protecting privacy in the digital age is only becoming more complex so legislative solutions are going to be difficult, but this is where Congress takes its oversight role seriously.”

The financial and retailing industries have blamed one another for the security lapses. Bankers have complained that retailers do not take adequate precautions to secure customer data. Retailers have blamed antiquated credit card technology for putting private information at risk.

U.S. credit and debit cards store information on a magnetic strip, a technology at least 30 years old. Plans are underway to update the card system with digital chips by October 2015.

And while the news reports have focused on large businesses, there are concerns that consumers’ worries about credit card use could affect their spending overall.

“What’s a little business to do?” said Linda Orenstein of Gem Jewelry on the Gainesville square.

“We handle everything so close in-house that if a card used here is compromised, it’s going to be (because of) a master criminal who has been able to get on the credit card company’s computer. It’s not coming from me.”

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office also encourages residents to “get involved in their credit monitoring,” spokeswoman Nicole Bailes said.

“It is very difficult to tell people that they will never fall victim to identity theft,” she said. “It’s just not practical these days. With all of the sophisticated methods in stealing one’s identity, you are almost certain in some form to fall victim.”

The sheriff’s office has compiled its own set of tips from the FTC and Better Business Bureau. Among the suggestions is perhaps one consumers might not consider: Change your personal identification numbers and passwords often.

While consumers feel the pain upfront, banks often end up the ones taking the financial loss.

“In general, if there’s confirmed, verifiable fraud, the customer is made whole and you’re not out any money,” Oliver said. “There’s a process you’ve got to go through to do that, but the fraud ends up costing the bank.”

All this concern over personal data may tempt some to resort to carrying only paper money, but that carries its own “safety and security concerns,” Oliver said.

“The benefit of having multiple payment options ... means consumers have lots of choices,” he said. “It really comes down to what is most convenient and comfortable for each person.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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