What does a data breach mean? (And how to improve data security)

We live in a highly digitalized world. We use the internet to connect with friends and loved ones, shop for our favorite things, transact with banks, and complete work tasks. 

Unfortunately, this makes us vulnerable to various attacks and fraudulent activities. For one, data breaches are serious events that can damage businesses and individuals.

You’d want to protect your personal information at all costs, especially since you deserve to feel safe when interacting with brands and companies online. 

We understand your pain, so we checked various data safety sources online to understand how data breaches happen. We also looked at the latest cases of data breaches.

Hackers get innovative with their methods by the day, so it pays to stay updated on the latest tactics they use. We also sought expert insights on what to do after a data breach and how to protect your personal information.

Don’t skip out on important steps to take when your information has been compromised in a data breach, and learn about the TOP tip when dealing with one. 

Avoid consequences of a data breach, like identity theft—continue reading below. 

What are data breaches, and how do they occur?

Data breaches occur when entities take information from a specific system without authorization or knowledge of the owner.

Individuals and companies alike suffer from data breaches. Unfortunately, stolen data can be sensitive, as it may include confidential information, such as customer data, credit card numbers, trade secrets, and even concerns of national security. 

Data breaches can be damaging. They not only threaten reputations but also lead to perceived bias. For companies, this means losing their customer’s trust. 

Victims can also suffer financial losses, especially since fraudsters can access sensitive data like bank accounts, credit cards, and even social security numbers. 

So, why do data breaches happen in the first place? 

These circumstances generally occur because of weak or a lack of security measures and lax user behavior. Given how our devices can connect to WiFi, apps, and other devices, data can easily flow from one place to another. 

Where do most data breaches occur? 

According to Dataprot, 43% of information breaches affect small businesses, and cyberattacks account for 51% of leak incidents.

Although connectivity has changed our worlds in unprecedented ways, many people value convenience over security. As a result, we’re almost always at risk of identity thefts and data breaches. 

Types of data breaches and how they happen

Many people believe that data breaches are always the result of hacking, but this isn’t always the case. Data breaches happen for numerous reasons—whether intentional or unintentional. 

Let’s explore how a data breach can happen:

  • Data breaches can occur because of an “accidental insider.” If you use a co-worker’s computer and read files without asking for permission, for instance, it already counts as a data breach. 

While access here is unintentional, and you haven’t leaked the data, the mere act can be a breach because an unauthorized person had access to sensitive information.

  • Data breaches can also be due to a “malicious insider.” Here, a person acts with the intent to access and share data to harm either an individual or a company. Although they may have legitimate access to the data, a breach occurs when there is intent to steal and exploit information.
  • Data breaches also occur when someone loses their device—laptops, mobile phones, and other devices contain unencrypted information that unauthorized individuals can readily access and exploit.
  • Data breaches can also happen due to criminals using sophisticated technology to attack systems and steal information from individuals and companies.

What type of information do criminals steal from a data breach?

The consequences of a data breach can be severely harmful depending on the type of data leaked. 

Here are some examples of information that criminals can steal from breaches:

  • Credit card numbers
  • Bank accounts
  • Social security numbers
  • Driver’s license numbers
  • Medical histories
  • Personal information
  • Company information
  • Trade secrets
  • Customer lists

If the data breach involved your personally identifiable information (PII), you may be vulnerable to numerous crimes, such as identity theft.

What criminals can do with the information they steal

Criminals can use stolen data to commit other crimes, such as stealing funds from bank accounts, committing fraud under your name, and taking advantage of medical benefits. 

Often, stolen user data also serves as a precedent for criminals to attack other systems and platforms. 

They use stolen data to copy your identity and use this false identity to apply for loans, open new credit accounts, and so on. 

However, hackers profit from stolen data by selling it on the dark web, which users can readily exploit for countless criminal activities. 

Are data breaches the same as cyber attacks?

Many cyber attacks happen because criminals want to access data they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, but this doesn’t mean that all data breaches are cyberattacks.

Unintentional data breaches, for instance, aren’t necessarily cyber attacks. Data breaches that occur through phishing or malicious insiders are.

Some data breach examples over the past decade

It may not seem like it, but data breaches happen regularly. The United States alone suffered from 1,244 data breaches in 2018. 

This caused around 446.5 million records to be exposed. Other examples of data breach scandals are as follows:

Yahoo (2013)

Previously the leading search engine, Yahoo suffered from some of the worst data breaches in the past decade. 

Over 3 billion accounts were exposed after a breach in 2013, but the news didn’t break about this until September 2017–that’s four years! 

Based on expert insights, Yahoo resorted to outdated encryption, which compromised people’s information.

eBay (2014)

In May 2014, eBay suffered a massive breach that leaked 145 million eBay customer information, including names, passwords, contact information, and other data. 

This prompted them to ask users to change their passwords, but by then, the damage had already been done.

Equifax (2017)

Equifax reported in September 2017 that half the country’s information had been compromised in the months of May through July the same year. 

It’s deemed as one of the worst data breaches online, as it also leaked social security numbers, credit cards, and other sensitive data.

Does the US have laws against data breaches?

Numerous countries worldwide have laws regarding data breaches, but the U.S. has no federal laws governing this issue. 

However, all states and territories have laws that require private businesses to notify users of data breaches involving their personal information.

Some states also require government institutions to do the same. 

The U.S. also has multiple regulations regarding data privacy, such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA).

What to do if your information was involved in a data breach

If you received a notification stating that an information breach may have compromised your data, it’s crucial to know what to do. 

You need to act fast if you want to protect yourself against crimes like identity theft.

Here are some things to do if you’ve received a notification that your data has been compromised:

1. Ensure the data breach notification is legitimate

Before you respond to emails or texts stating that criminals may have stolen your user data, you first need to ensure that you’re dealing with a legitimate notification.

Some criminals disseminate fake emails as part of a phishing scheme. 

These emails may demand you to input sensitive data (e.g., your login credentials or financial details) or ask you to click a link or download an attachment containing malware.

Look out for signs that the notification may not be legitimate, such as grammatical errors, misspelled webpage domains, and threats of legal action. 

2. Contact the company involved and look for updates regarding the breach

You may also contact the company involved to confirm if the data breach notification is legitimate. 

The organization may post updates regarding the breach on its website or social media page.

3. Examine your credit reports 

Because data theft following a breach sometimes involves financial information, it’s crucial to check your credit report to look for any discrepancies. 

Request credit reports from the three major credit checking bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

You should also check your credit card statements immediately to watch for unusual transactions. 

Thieves may have used your credit card details to pay for items, open new accounts, or take out loans.

4. Modify and strengthen your passwords

Some data leaks compromise your login credentials, such as your usernames and passwords. 

When this happens, criminals can access your accounts and use them for nefarious reasons. The consequences are more severe if you use the same password for multiple accounts.

Following a data breach, it’s best to change your passwords immediately. 

Use different passwords for each account, and strengthen them with a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special symbols. Make them long and complex to prevent hackers from guessing them.

How to protect your personal information from data breaches

Prevention is often your best line of defense to prevent data breaches from compromising your information. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Activate multi-factor authentication (MFA). This will make it more difficult for criminals to access your accounts.
  • Use complex passwords—ideally 11–15 characters long. You may use password managers to generate and store passcodes for your accounts.
  • Invest in identity theft protection services. These companies can help protect against fraud that may follow data breaches.

Daniel Chen, Chief Product Director at SaaS company Airgram, also states that: “In the wake of a data breach, it is essential to take steps to secure remaining data and systems. This may include updating passwords, encrypting data, and increasing security monitoring.”


Data breaches can occur without warning, so it’s imperative to believe that you’re always at risk. Understanding what you can lose through data breaches is only the tip of the iceberg—total protection means proactively engaging in practices that ensure your personal data remains safe online. Prevention is always better than cure, so make sure to always keep this guide in mind. 

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