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What You Need to Know About Data Breaches

Imagine this: You grab brunch with a friend—they front the bill, so you Venmo them back. Next you find a coffee shop to camp out in and work on your latest photoshoot in Adobe Lightroom. Then you take a break to jump on LinkedIn and post about the grind of freelancing. If this sounds like a normal Saturday for any millennial or Zoomer, that’s because it is. It’s also the reason why your info is now part of a data breach.

Thanks to the “mother of all data breaches” (aka MOAB) involving 20 brands like those above, over 26 billion data records were stolen at the beginning of 2024.[1] One expert said the majority of people are probably affected.

If you’re not scared for your data yet, you should be. Data breaches aren’t unusual (cue Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual”). In fact, they appear to be on the rise. MOAB is only the latest in a long list of data breaches, each one more widespread and dangerous than the next.

While being part of a data breach doesn’t automatically mean your identity will be stolen, it does put you more at risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. The smartest way to protect yourself from these unsavory intruders is to make sure you’re covered with identity theft protection.


Key Takeaways

  • A data breach happens when sensitive information is stolen or accessed illegally by a criminal.
  • Data breaches are getting bigger and happening more often.
  • Being part of a data breach doesn’t mean your identity has been stolen, but it does mean your risk just got much higher.
  • Cybercriminals use many ways and means to get hold of sensitive info including phishing, theft, password guessing and ransomware.

What Is a Data Breach?

A data breach is a security incident where personal and confidential information is stolen by another individual. The compromised info can include things like your name, birth date, street address, health care history, customer lists, Social Security number, and bank account information. If a company or organization discovers an unauthorized individual has viewed that information, they know they’ve had a data breach.


Data Breach vs. Data Leak

So, I’ve mentioned a data breach, but what is a data leak, you ask? Is there a difference? Yep. While a breach involves an outsider like a hacker (think of the dude in movies who’s always sitting in a van with computers and saying things like, “Alright, I’m in!”) breaking in and stealing information, a leak doesn’t start with a cyberattack—a company basically just leaves the door open by mistake so anyone can come in and have a gander at your info.

Just because a company has a data leak doesn’t mean someone accessed the information. But in the same way you’d need to cancel your debit card if you left it out in a parking lot for a day because you don’t know if someone saw it, when a data leak happens, there’s no way to know who—if anyone—saw your information either.



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How Is a Data Breach Different From Identity Theft?

Identity theft involves someone actually using your private information—usually for their own financial gain or to impersonate you.

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I’ve personally experienced this, and let me tell you, it was not a good time. Someone got ahold of my Social Security number, phone number, and an old address, and ended up opening multiple cell phone accounts across the country under my name and racked up a whole bunch of debt.

I found out about it when a debt collector called me to collect on the money owed. As you can imagine, confusion and chaos ensued as I tried to tidy the mess up for months. So yeah, that’s identity theft. You might think you qualify as an identity theft victim if your personal information was exposed in a data breach—but the good news is, that’s not always the case! So breathe easy.


Recent Data Breaches

Some data breaches seem more “minor” in nature because the information they gather feels less significant (like Facebook’s misuse of private data that impacted a potential 87 million users).[2]

Sure, gaining access to information like names, email addresses, and passwords might not seem as harmful as someone having your Social Security number. But any data breach can leave you at risk of identity theft if the hackers want to use that information against you. Even a breach of less sensitive information like the one with Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal users can still affect millions of people—150 million, to be exact.[3] On a positive note, I’m honestly impressed that there are 150 million people out there attempting to get in shape. Way to go, guys.

Just reading the words data breach probably makes you think of one of the most infamous breaches in recent history. It’s hard to forget the far-reaching Equifax blunder that exposed Social Security numbers, birth dates, home addresses, tax ID numbers, and driver’s license information of potentially 148 million people.[4]

The sad truth is, a lot of the industries we trust to keep personal information safe are prone to being hacked.



Potential Records Impacted

MOAB (20 brands including Tencent, LinkedIn, X, Venmo, Weibo, Canva, Apollo and Adobe)[5]

Jan. 2024

26 billion


Oct. 2023

4 million


Oct. 2023

35 million


Jan. 2023

200 million


Nov. 2022

At least 22 million


Sept. 2022



July 2022

2.2 million

Apache Log4j[12]

Dec. 2021


GetHealth (Fitbit, Apple watch)[13]

Sept. 2021

61 million

Microsoft Power Apps (Ford Motor Company, American Airlines, government agencies, and more)[14]

Aug. 2021

38 million


April 2021

126 million

20/20 Eyecare Network[16]

May 2021

3 million


April 2021

533 million


June 2021

700 million


March 2021

21 million


April 2021

5.6 million

Compilation of Many Breaches (COMB)[21]

Feb. 2021

3.2 billion


Jan. 2021

2 million


Jan. 2021

1.9 million


Jan. 2021

214 million


Jan. 2021

23 million

Neiman Marcus[26]

May 2020

4.6 million

Capital One Financial Corporation[27]

July 2019

106 million

Marriott Hotels[28]

Nov. 2018

500 million

SunTrust Banks[29]

April 2018

1.5 million

Panera Bread[30]

April 2018

37 million

Under Armour[31]

March 2018

150 million


Sept. 2017

147 million

*To find more recent breaches, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.


How Do Data Breaches Happen?

It seems like big-time security measures should be enough to keep cyber-attacks at bay, but no safety measure is surefire. Large-scale or minor data breaches can happen anytime a hacker or anyone who isn’t authorized gains access to sensitive files or information. And they happen a lot more often than you might think.

So, who or what is to blame for making these trusted companies vulnerable to data breaches? Anything as minor as a weak password can cause a breach. Like when you’ve used the same password pickles98 for the last 23 years across every single online account you have. Sometimes though, a website is missing a security patch or a system glitch is at fault.

In the case of a leak, the company unknowingly triggers the leak of info. This type of incident is also known as an accidental data breach and can be caused by things like failure to follow password guidelines or public-facing web services. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s a new puppy or your personal info, “accidental leaks” are no fun to deal with.


Artificial Intelligence

There’s a new kid on the data breach block: AI. No, not short for Alfred. I’m talking artificial intelligence. In a recent study, 75% of the security professionals surveyed reported more cyber security attacks than ever before—and of those, 85% attributed the rise to bad guys using AI’s help.[33]

If you’ve tried any of the free AI tools out there, you might not be too worried (try telling it to draw anything with hands and you get something that looks like a human octopus). But you should know, AI is adept at making top-notch phishing emails without any of the tell-tale red flags, like grammatical errors, that usually tip humans off.

AI can also be used to scan through loads of stolen data to craft a perfect spear phishing email. It can generate a conversation if someone decides to respond to one of these emails. And it can even clone voices to answer the phone!

But that’s not all. Recently, some criminals after some serious money used AI to deepfake a videocall, pretending to be the CFO of a multinational Hong Kong company.[34] They managed to get an employee to transfer $25 million! You may not be a multinational billion-dollar company, but that technology could easily be used to steal your data from a large company or worse.

Whether it’s by AI or a real guy named Al, data breaches don’t seem to be slowing down. A report by Cybersecurity Ventures shows that the global cost of cybercrime is expected to exceed $10 trillion by 2025.[35] Which is ten million millions. Ten thousand billions. Yes, it makes my head hurt too.


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Types of Data Breaches

By now, we’ve touched on a few different ways data gets breached, but you should know just how ingenious and varied cyber baddies can get, so let’s look at different ways data can get stolen.

Stolen Information

Believe it or not, people sometimes just straight-up steal stuff—a laptop left unattended for a moment, a lost phone, a file sent to the wrong person—all of these are ways for bad actors to get their hands on data that doesn’t belong to them.

This could include an insider threat—think angry (or just unethical) employees on their way out of a company. In 2022, a research scientist stole 570,000 pages of Yahoo’s intellectual property after he got a job offer somewhere else.[36]


This term covers a lot of different things. But basically, malware is software created for bad purposes—like letting a person take over someone else’s device, steal info, or launch an attack.


This isn’t the kind of fishing that involves a tacklebox or following the band Phish on their 26-date summer tour. This is where a bad guy creates an email or website that looks legit, then fools the new recruit at a big company to send all their login details to the wrong person. And now that someone’s SSN is on the dark web. Whoops.

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

This is a form of phishing where the email sent has no attachment or URL you’re supposed to click on. Instead, the criminal crafts the email to feel like it is from inside your company and often impersonates the CEO, asking you to transfer money or send all the tax info on their employees or something like that.


This one doesn’t involve people being kidnapped for ransom à la Taken (Liam Neeson just let out a deep sigh of relief). This is when a criminal uses malware to lock up a company’s data and hold it for ransom—aka “Send us $2 million or we’ll release all your customers’ sensitive info to the world.” Sending the ransom isn’t a guarantee you’ll get the data back—or that they won’t keep a copy and release it anyway.

This happened to Las Vegas casino operator Caesars. A cybercrime group infiltrated their systems and demanded $15 million in ransom. Caesars ponied up, but after the cybercriminals had the money, they attacked anyway.[37]

Password Guessing

We’ve all been there—typing in variations of our passwords into the Amazon login until we get it right. Well, cyber criminals do it too. Passwords that are too simple make it easy for bad guys to guess and gain access. An employee leaving a password on a sticky note by their monitor also counts.


What Is Targeted in Data Breaches?

When a hacker makes a cyberattack, they’re usually gunning for any sensitive data they can find—anything that can either be used to steal immediately (like payment information) or get them access to stuff that can be used to steal (like passwords).

Like I mentioned before, sensitive data can include your name, birth date, street address, health care history, customer lists, Social Security number, and bank account information. Also included in there is your zip code, phone number, debit (or credit—boo!) card number, education records, or biometric data (think fingerprints to get into your phone).

What are these lowlifes who hang out in dark basements with Cheeto dust on their shirts scanning the interwebs for? Weak credentials (like your password that’s the name of your dog followed by your birthdate), a way to steal credentials, or compromised assets (like those leaks we talked about earlier).

Hackers will also target a person or a company who has legitimate access to another company’s sensitive data for things like management or maintenance. This is called third-party access. You could have the cyber version of the Great Wall of China around your business, but if the little company contracted to do your marketing has one of those dog name/birthday passwords, you’ve got a big gaping hole in your wall.


How Do I Know if I’ve Been Affected by a Data Breach?

If a company experiences a data breach, they’re required by state law to let you know about it.[38] It’s news no one wants to hear, but knowing allows you to become hyperalert and keep an eye on things moving forward.

Sometimes companies even offer compensation after people sue them. Equifax settled their agreement to make up for the way they handled their 2017 data breach. They handed out compensation for credit monitoring, loss of time and money, and even a partial reimbursement for any monitoring purchased with Equifax.[39] If you find out your info is part of a data breach, stay tuned for any lawsuit settlements.

Even if you’ve been given free credit monitoring, when it comes to solid defense, you need to get ID theft protection. It’ll not only protect your information, but more importantly help you clean up any messes that come with these awful data breaches.


What Can I Do to Protect Myself From Data Breaches?

Here’s the bad news: In this digital age we live in, there’s no way to 100% guarantee that you’ll never be part of a data breach. (Unless you become a homesteading recluse who lives off the grid.)

But here’s the good news: It’s not all doom and gloom. And I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. There are plenty of common security practices you can put into place to help protect your information where you are in control.

Shred documents with your personal information listed, never keep your Social Security card in your wallet, and be cautious about who you share your personal information with. Also, be alert and don’t fall prey to all the different types of fraud out there—they’re everywhere, and most of them are pretty easy to spot. Last but not least, don’t forget to arm yourself with identity theft protection.


What Can I Do to Protect Myself From Identity Theft After a Breach?

If a company with your information has a data breach, there are a few important steps you can take to stay ahead of hackers and protect yourself from identity theft. Remember, a breach doesn’t automatically mean your identity has been stolen.

Change Your Passwords

It’s a good idea to go ahead and change your passwords—especially if you use the same password in multiple places. Pro tip: Don’t use the same password across accounts! Using the same password for all your social media profiles, email addresses and bank accounts is just asking for trouble. Instead, you should always use unique passwords. I know you think I’m a madman for saying that, but this is the price to pay for digital safety in the modern world.

Creating diverse passwords can be tricky. But whatever you do, don’t rely on a phrase or anything that is easy to guess. (Sorry, that means famous quotes and maiden names aren’t good fallbacks.) Get creative!

Let me help you with this:

  • Use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters.
  • Use special characters (like ! or # or $).
  • Make your passwords long (12 characters minimum).
  • Use random words strung together (instead of “merrychristmas” try “GrinchHome@loneElf18”).

Check Your Credit Report

To be clear, I’m not worried about your credit score here (in fact, I never am). Instead, look through your credit report to see if anything suspicious or odd stands out to you.

You can get one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit-monitoring bureaus. This means you can check your credit report every three to four months. If you can stay on top of your credit report, you could have the upper hand in noticing suspicious activity.

Look for red flags like these:

  • Inactive accounts that suddenly have activity on them
  • A line of credit appears that you didn’t open
  • Your personal information is incorrect
  • A good standing account is in collections
  • A credit inquiry pops up that you didn’t apply for

Never ignore red flags! Coincidentally, that advice works for credit reports, and even better for relationships.

I know it can be annoying to sift through your bank transactions each day. But then again, if you can make time to scroll through your social media feeds, you should be able to make time to keep your money and identity safe. Need some ice for that burn? But seriously, make time for this stuff!

Your bank should alert you if they see anything irregular going on—but don’t rely on that. It’s much more beneficial if you’re the one checking your account every single day. Because no one cares about your financial safety as much as you.

Get Identity Theft Protection

You can’t have eyes everywhere all at once though. A solid identity theft protection program can help keep you from being a sitting duck waiting for identity theft to find you. Be proactive! Make sure you’re prepared before you become a victim of a data breach.

A good identity theft protection program will alert you if anything looks suspicious—like if someone figures out your password! Kelsey C. got ID protection through RamseyTrusted provider Zander Insurance and it helped her stay ahead of the bad guys.

“They have alerted us several times to security breaches with passwords and such,” she shared on the Ramsey Baby Steps Facebook Community group. “It’s been well worth it for us!”

Zander’s ID protection is the same protection I personally use, and it’ll save your butt (and dozens of hours of your precious time) if you get hit by identity theft.


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George Kamel

About the author

George Kamel

George Kamel is the #1 national bestselling author of Breaking Free From Broke, a personal finance expert, a certified financial coach through Ramsey Financial Coach Master Training, and a nationally syndicated columnist. He’s the host of the George Kamel YouTube channel and co-host of Smart Money Happy Hour and The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk radio show in America. George has served at Ramsey Solutions since 2013, where he speaks, writes and teaches on personal finance, investing, budgeting, insurance and how to avoid consumer traps. He’s been featured on Fox News, Fox Business and The Iced Coffee Hour, among others. Learn More.

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