How to protect yourself from mass scale data breaches

How to protect yourself from mass scale data breaches
SEATTLE -- There have been a number of big data breaches in the past few years, but this latest one is huge.

On Monday, the feds busted Albert Gonzalez of Miami and charged him with the largest case of identity theft in U.S. history.

Prosecutors say the 28 year old, who was known as the "Soup Nazi" when he was a government informant, worked with two Russian cyber-thieves to steal the account information and sell the stolen debit and credit card numbers.

They targeted 7-Eleven, Hannaford Brothers -- a supermarket chain in New England -- and Heartland Systems -- a credit card payment processor in New Jersey.

No one knows how much of the stolen data was used or sold, but it affected roughly 130 million credit and debit card numbers.

Gonzalez is already in prison for a previous hack attack. That time, he and his accomplices stole about 40 million credit card account numbers from T.J. Maxx, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority and Office Max.

It shows once again just how vulnerable retail payment systems are. They favor speed -- getting your through checkout quickly -- instead of security.

An Associated Press investigation found that credit and debit card numbers are not always encrypted as those move from the store to the bank for approval. You can bet there will be more of these cyber break-ins, so you need to be on guard -- all the time -- for possible fraud.

Here's how to protect yourself: Carefully review your credit card or bank statement. If you don't want to wait until the paper statement comes in the mail, go online.

Check the statement line by line. You can't just glance at it, check the due date and the total. Look at all the charges to see if anything doesn't seem right.

Remember, bogus charges are often small. The bad guys are evil, not stupid. They're not going to buy a $4,000 flat screen TV with your account number, as that would call attention to itself.

They'll try to slip small charges, like $7.99, $12.45, $19.99 past you. That's why it's so important to go over the statement line by line.

And you need to do this every month. Crooks can hold on to stolen debit or credit card numbers for a long time -- as much as a year or more -- before using or selling them. So make this your normal routine.

Now, if you used a card at 7-Eleven, you may be wondering if you should cancel your credit or debit card? The experts at credit.com say probably not -- unless you have some specific reason to believe your card number was compromised.

Canceling the card could lower credit score without really giving you any extra protection. That's because a credit card has built-in fraud protection.

For debit cards, that's another matter, since it's a direct pipeline to your bank account. The best thing you can do is to make sure you don't leave too much money in that account. Because if the account is drained, you'll have to prove to your bank it was fraud and you may have to wait a while to get your money back. Reason No. 37 why I do not like debit cards.