On Thursday, Home Depot acknowledged that hackers were able to access 56 million credit and debit cards when the retailer's systems were cracked this April. The company says all malware has been removed from its U.S. and Canadian networks, but hackers have had access to card numbers as recently as September. If you've shopped at Home Depot within the past six months, here's what you need to know:
Home Depot is providing free identity protection. The company is working with AllClear ID to give identity theft protection services, including credit monitoring, to all customers who have shopped at Home Depot since April 2014. To sign up, either go to this web page or call 1-855-252-0908, and AllClear will assign you an identity theft investigator.
Check your statements frequently. Credit card users shouldn't worry too much about their number being stolen because credit card companies limit individual liability to $50. Of course, if you don't identify fraudulent charges, your credit card company won't cover them -- so make sure to at least check your monthly credit-card statements.
Debit card users should be more vigilant about scrutinizing account activity -- going back to April and going forward on a regular basis. The reason is that fraudulent charges are covered by banks for just 60 days after you receive a statement with such charges on it. The Home Depot data breach lasted months, so you could already be on the hook for purchases you didn't make. Home Depot says AllClear's identity theft protection service "will do the work to recover financial losses," but it's unclear what that means in the case of debit cards. (AllClear declined to comment on its partnership with Home Depot, and did not immediately respond to general questions about how debit card fraud is handled.) Home Depot claims there is no evidence that crooks obtained debit card PINs, but a company spokesperson would not say whether or not other information, like customer names, was stolen.
Stolen card info can be sold to and used by other fraudsters long after a breach -- there's a secondary market for this kind of stuff -- so it's a good idea to check your debit account activity as often as several times per week. Your debit spending is not only more vulnerable to fraud, but also can be more damaging. You won't be out of pocket for bogus credit card payments; with debit card fraud, by contrast, the money is actually gone from your account until the issue is cleared up.
Look into getting a chip and pin payment card. Chip and pin payment cards are more secure, and offer an additional level of security by requiring users to enter a pin even when paying with a credit card. Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, recommends consumers call their bank and ask about upgrading to a chip and pin card. This technology hasn't been widely rolled out yet, but some bank already offer upgrades Schulz says most banks should offer this type card within the next year.
Try to relax. As these breaches become more common, it's important not to panic each time a business is compromised. Instead, always practice good security habits, like creating strong passwords for e-commerce and frequently checking your payment cards' transaction history.