"Online Theft" via David Evison, ThinkStock
"Online Theft" via David Evison, ThinkStock
“Online Theft” via David Evison, ThinkStock

If the news of the massive breach of Target customers’ credit and debit card numbers has you sweating bullets, you have a lot of company right now. Target admitted that hackers gained access to the names, credit card numbers, security codes and expiration dates from the credit and debit cards that many, many people used to make purchases at their stores since Thanksgiving, and sources say they’ve got all that data for at least 40 million people.

It illustrates that, no matter how safe you are with your credit card data, you can’t totally protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft. Thieves are going after individual consumers less and less — and going after companies, like Target, who have vast stores of this information more and more. Consumers just have to prepare for the day that they inevitably will have to deal with an identity theft issue, because it’s no longer a matter of “if”: It’s a matter of “when.”

So what do you do if you’re one of those 40 million Americans worrying that thieves have access to your credit or debit card information? Just follow these simple steps, and take a little weight off your shoulders just in time for Christmas.

  1. Check your account statements right now. If you shopped at a Target store between Black Friday and last Sunday (December 15), open a new tab on your computer right now (or your bank or credit card company’s official app, if you’re on your phone) and, after you make sure that you are on a secure WiFi connection, check your online account statements for your credit cards and bank accounts (if you used a debit card) for fraudulent charges. Call your credit card issuers or your bank immediately if you see any purchase at any store that you didn’t make.
  2. Replace your card ASAP. You should strongly consider replacing the credit card(s) or debit card(s) that you used at Target during between Black Friday and December 15, as all those cards were reportedly compromised in a way that will apparently allow the thieves to recreate physical cards and use them at their convenience. Even though your card might not yet have been used, the data that was on the card is still compromised and waiting to replace it could cost you money and time later.
  3. Update your new payment information. When you do replace your card — and you really should — make sure to update with the new credit card number any of the other places where you use that card to automatically pay monthly, recurring fees to avoid disruptions to service. This could include anything from your Netflix or Hulu accounts, any storage space you might have, your Apple account, or your cell phone, insurance or utility bills. Otherwise, those charges won’t go through and you could create even more headaches for yourself.
  4. Keep checking your accounts. If you decide not to immediately replace your card(s) because you can’t afford the disruption just before the holidays, you should review every transaction on them every day via your credit card company’s or bank’s online sites (via a secure Internet connection) until you do replace them yourself or your credit card company or companies replace them for you.
  5. Check your credit reports. Finally — though you should already be doing this as a matter of course — you should make sure to get and review your free annual credit reports, which the FTC offers at AnnualCreditReport.com some time early next quarter, to make sure there’s no other charges or open accounts that you don’t recognize and, if there are, start the credit reporting agencies’ resolution processes as soon as possible. If you just pulled your annual reports, a free service like the one my company, Credit.com, offers, will generate a “credit score” updated monthly to allow you to assess and track if there are any changes to your credit status.

The best thing you can do in this instance is to be proactive, because it’ll save you time and money in the long run. What’s even better is that, when other opportunistic thieves call you or email pretending to be your bank or credit card companies and demanding your account information to help resolve your Target-related headaches, you can hang up, report them to the FTC and be secure in the knowledge that you already took care of the issues yourself.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.