Here's what hackers are after -- and what they're getting.
Credit cards: Every time you swipe a debit card at a store, that transaction is processed on a computer network. That network is connected to the Internet. Hackers break into those computers from far away, infect them with a virus and steal card data.
And credit card hacks will keep happening. Retailers haven't yet figured out how to guard their Internet-connected payment systems. Plus, we're swiping cards that are fundamentally insecure. Magnetic stripes use 1950s technology. It's easy to grab their data, slap it on blank cards and sell them online.
Making matters worse, the United States has yet to join the rest of the world and upgrade to chip-enabled smart cards, which are harder to reproduce. Everyone is hurting.
Remember: The costs of hacking get passed along to you, the consumer.
Then there's the annoyance every time a bank reissues your card. It costs banks $3 to $5 each, and you go a week without a card. Those costs get passed onto you as well.
Identities: They're not just after your money. Hackers want to impersonate you too.
Why? On the black market, old credit cards only fetch $1 each. Medical records go for $50 a pop.
They're more valuable, because criminals use your Social Security number to fraudulently bill insurance, Medicare or Medicaid or get prescriptions for controlled drugs. The FBI estimates that fraud makes up 3% to 10% of the $2.5 trillion the United States spends on health care annually. That adds up to a whopping $75 billion to $250 billion a year. Taxpayers everywhere are footing the bill.
There's not much you can do to stop them from getting your personal information -- it is more accessible than ever. We type our Social Security numbers into online job applications and loan requests. Medical records, by default, now live on hospital computer servers.
Identity theft can be much worse than credit card fraud. Your credit history can be ruined. Good luck buying a house. Someone can rack up a criminal record in your name. Cleaning that up is a mess.
What you can do: We've moved our entire lives online, yet most of us refuse to take the proper precautions.
Retailers, hospitals, government agencies, teenagers, adults -- we're all guilty. We stupidly reuse the same, short password. We answer easy-to-guess security questions honestly.
So here's what to do: Avoid using your debit card -- ever. If it's compromised, criminals can empty your checking account. Use cash instead. Or use your credit card, because then you're not liable for fraud.
Change your passwords frequently, and use better ones. Password123 is easy to remember but easy to crack. Something like H&uy91oP is hard to remember but still easy to crack. Use a long, wacky passphrase like, My52ndDinosaurHouseIsOnFiiire!.