Jun 18, 2015 - 10:00am

Hacked: Emily Gets a Lesson in Cybersecurity

When the text message from Emily’s bank popped up on her smartphone alerting her to a suspicious charge on her credit card, she got a knotted feeling in her stomach.

That she received the alert in the middle of the day -- when she was handling one of her first projects for a new client, Rapid651 Sign & Graphics, a local manufacturer of signage for businesses -- didn’t help, either. She quickly switched gears to check things out.

Logging on to her account, she found a mysterious charge to a vaguely named website with a .uk domain -- a purchase she did not make. Emily called the bank to let them know, and they immediately canceled her card. A replacement was in the mail.

“I’m glad the bank has such a sophisticated fraud alert system and that they caught the charge so quickly,” Emily said. “I don’t look at my account every day, so it might have been a week or more before I noticed anything unusual.”

A customer service rep at the bank told Emily that they couldn’t say for certain how her credit card information fell into the hands of a criminal (or criminals), but that it likely arose from a data breach somewhere.

For Emily, it was a first-hand initiation into the growing segment of Americans finding their personal information compromised by hacks and data breaches. Last year, more than 110 million Americans had their data exposed in cybersecurity incidents, according to federal estimates. The sheer number and scope of the attacks has moved the issue to the forefront of the agenda in Washington – especially after the massive breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where 4 million current and former federal employees had personal information and Social Security numbers hijacked.

“I’d seen the news reports about all these hacker attacks, but I guess it always seemed like one of those things that happens to other people,” she said. “Then when it happens to you, you start noticing the news stories more. It got me to thinking about how else might I be vulnerable. It’s not a good feeling.”

Cybersecurity breaches are a growth industry for criminals, as more of our lives are lived online -- and every connected entity is vulnerable, from companies of all sizes to academic institutions to government agencies. It made Emily hope that all of the big players were sharing what they have learned on the cyber front in the hopes of stopping the bad guys down the road.

In another recent attack, hackers hit the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) database and stole tax information on more than 100,000 taxpayers. Given how much personal information the IRS collects on taxpayers, Emily was relieved to not be one of them.

Emily was fortunate not to experience any significant losses this time, but she still faced a significant inconvenience in updating her payment information to reflect her new account number.

“I didn’t realize how many accounts I had linked to that card for automatic payment each month. I spent more than two hours on Saturday going through and updating my payment information on one website after another,” she said. “Still, it’s better than the alternative. I’d rather have to update my accounts than deal with the fallout of identity theft.”

It also underscored for Emily how vulnerable her business could be -- and that she needed to be prepared. After all, as a self-employed individual, she doesn’t have a tech team working on her behalf to focus on securing her computer and data from attackers. She immediately started reading up on cybersecurity tips for small business owners -- with the hope of not being a victim again.

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