The red flags of data theft

We've seen several data breach announcements this year, including ones that have potentially impacted local residents. Data breaches are more common these days, especially as companies are collecting and storing more customer data than ever before. It's extremely important to be proactive in protecting your information as much as possible.

No two data breaches are the same, and each incident can expose unique information. People affected by a breach may be at an increased risk for identity theft. Thieves may use stolen information to fraudulently apply for credit, unemployment benefits and more. In some cases, individuals' financial accounts may be accessible to thieves.

While it's hard to fully avoid data breaches, especially since some breaches occur when we use credit or debit cards, there are steps you can take when shopping online shopping or managing accounts online to help minimize the chances.

First, always confirm you're on a website that is using secure protocols before sharing any personal information. Basic security measures include "HTTPS" protocol, which should appear in the start of a company's URL. (The "s" signifies the security of the page). You should also find a closed lock symbol or similar designation that allows you to confirm that the page is secure.

In addition, verify the company offers a clear and detailed privacy policy if it's collecting personally identifiable information on its site, and review that policy to learn what steps the company will take to protect your information. Also look for and check the validity of trust seals like BBB's Accredited Business seal.

Another area where you'll want to use caution is social media. It can be easy to be pulled into oversharing information online. It's not just about your Social Security number; online quizzes and games may put you at risk! When you share things like your first pet's name or the town you were born in, this can be used to hack your accounts — especially if you've used the same data in passwords and/or security questions.

Signs of compromised data

You may be able to identify compromised data before a breach is publicly declared. Signs can include unexplained withdrawals, charges and new accounts that have been opened in your name or under your Social Security number.

It's easiest to do this if you set up a routine to consistently check your bank transactions and financial transactions. You'll also want to set up a schedule for checking your credit report through each of the three major credit bureaus. You can do this for free each year (twice a year for Georgians) by using the officially authorized site, By selecting a different creditor to request your report each time, you can space these checks out throughout the year.

Another proactive step is to keep a schedule of when your bills are due. A tipoff for identity theft comes when you stop receiving certain bills. This can happen because scammers have changed the address associated with your bank account or credit card. If bills don't arrive on time, follow up with your creditors. In the meantime, it's a good idea to set up automatic alerts on your accounts so you are notified every time a transaction is made.

If you learn that your data was involved in a data breach, we encourage you to stay calm. Individuals are not liable for fraudulent charges on stolen account numbers, and most companies offer resources to help you monitor your information to detect compromises.

If you receive a notice, confirm its validity by checking the website of the company that was breached. Be sure you're using an authentic URL to visit the company's site, and do not click on a link from an email or social media message, as this could be an ID theft scam on its own. Visiting the wrong site could cause malware to be loaded on your computer.

If the company is offering you credit monitoring services, be sure to check out the monitoring company's report with BBB to verify it has a strong rating and customer experience record.

If your data has potentially been breached, you'll want to consider putting a credit freeze or fraud alert on your credit reports with the three major credit reporting agencies, which can be done at Once you set these up with one of the creditors, it should extend to all three. A credit freeze will prevent anyone from accessing your credit report or scores whereas a fraud alert flags your account but does not automatically stop new credit from being opened in your name.

If you see a fraudulent charge on your bank or credit card statements, report it to your bank or credit card issuer immediately, using the number that appears on your credit card. They'll work with you to reverse the charge and issue a new card to you. Keep receipts in case you need to prove which charges you authorized and which ones you did not.

If your debit card has been breached, immediately contact your bank and discuss obtaining a new debit card or putting a security block on your account. Debit cards do not have the same protections as credit cards, and debit transactions withdraw funds directly from your bank account.

Overall, stay aware of calls or other forms of contact from people who may purport to be from the retailer, your bank or your credit card issuer, telling you that your card was compromised and suggesting actions to "fix" the problem. They may be aware of the breach because they're behind it and are using the opportunity to gain more of your information directly from you.

Shred Day set for Oct. 7th

A great, proactive approach to securing your identity is to safely destroy and dispose of unneeded documents and hard drives that contain your personally identifiable information. BBB is here to help with our fall "Shred Day."

BBB is holding this free, biannual event in partnership with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, River City Shredding, Resource 1 Tier 3 Data Security, Coca-Cola Bottling Company and the Hamilton County Coalition from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 7. (Shredding will end earlier if trucks fill up.)

The event will be in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company's parking lot at 2111 W. Shepherd Road in Chattanooga, which is just off Exit 1A (Airport exit) from Highway 153.

This is also a wonderful opportunity for residents to have electronics recycled and outdated or unneeded prescription drugs dropped off for safe disposal.

Please limit documents to three large trash bags of documents per person and limit hard drives to four per person.

For more information, please visit or call your BBB at 423-266-6144.

Michele Mason is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.