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Published: Sep 19, 2023 7 min read

In the internet age, data leaks affect everyone. Data breaches occur in practically every industry, from retail companies to language learning apps to entire countries. But what exactly does it mean to have had your information leaked, and what can you as an affected party do to prevent further attacks in the future?

Read on to learn how to protect yourself online from these attacks, as well as how to recover after the leak has occurred.

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What the “this password has appeared in a data leak” notification really means

Most of us learned what data leaks were by reading the news of big tech companies having their information stolen by hackers. But what does it mean to find out your information has been leaked in a data breach? Let’s delve into how passwords become exposed in data breaches and the risk of a leaked password for an individual or a business.

How passwords become exposed in data breaches

According to the Federal Trade Commission, reusing a password for multiple accounts is one of the most common weaknesses in cybersecurity. Hackers usually target small websites with weak password security, in the hopes that you’ve reused your password in a bigger site with more of your personal information available.

But not all data leaks come from smaller sites. Many of the biggest data breaches in history have come from exploiting weaknesses in larger sites, such as social media giant Facebook, Caesars Entertainment and even the French government. These organizations can work fast to fix their vulnerabilities, but not before millions of user data is exposed.

It’s important to keep calm and make sure you have actually been part of a data breach, as phishing scams claiming data breaches and asking you to click dubious links to fix them feed on users’ fear of data leaks. Make sure your information on the purported data leak comes from a reputable source.

The risks of a leaked password for individuals

Password leaks from cyberattacks can lead to having your personal information exposed, including sensitive data such as credit card information, login credentials to other sites and even your Social Security number in some cases. This is usually why security recommendations usually include having a unique password for each account you create or using a password manager.

The potential consequences of data leaks for businesses

For businesses, a data leak can corrode public trust in the brand’s cybersecurity features and potentially release sensitive information about the organization’s internal layers of security. Usually, websites affected by data leaks release as little information as possible to prevent cybercriminals from learning their site’s weak spots. Small businesses attacked by data breaches can also struggle to regain their financial losses.

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Best practices for password management

There’s a right and a wrong way to come up with and store a password. Practicing good password hygiene, setting up two-factor authentication and using a trustworthy password manager are just some of the ways you can make your online experience more secure in the future.

Practice good password hygiene

Password hygiene is the practice of selecting and maintaining strong passwords, as well as a certain etiquette revolving around them. Best practices for password hygiene include never sharing or reusing passwords, changing important passwords semi-regularly, and using a password of a certain length that includes special characters as well as lowercase and uppercase letters. The latter is usually required by most reputable websites when choosing a password.

Set up two-factor authentication

Two or multi-factor authentication grants access to a user only after presenting multiple pieces of evidence to an authentication mechanism. Factors of authentication in a login scenario usually include confirming you have access to the email or phone number associated with that user by sending an authentication key. This might be annoying to users just trying to log in, but it virtually eliminates the possibility of a hacker getting access to your high priority personal data.

Use a trustworthy password manager

You might save a lot of the hassle and worrying associated with constantly changing passwords by employing a password manager. A password manager generates and stores saved passwords in an encrypted database, allowing the user to securely navigate the web while avoiding the tediousness of constantly keeping track of new passwords. Some of the best password managers are 1password, LastPass, BitWarden and Keeper.

How to recover from a password leak

Password leaks can happen to anyone and it’s hard to know how to respond. Changing a compromised password on all accounts that use it and monitoring for potential future accounts is paramount for creating a safe online experience.

Change compromised passwords

If you find your information has been breached in a data leak, you should change the password of the account associated with the leak immediately. Changing other accounts for which you use the same password is also wise, as repeated passwords can be at high risk of being compromised.

Monitor your online accounts

Password monitoring services from reputable password managers can help you monitor your accounts for future data breaches as well as protect them from current ones. You can also check haveibeenpwned to see if your email has been compromised by a recent data leak.

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What does it mean when your password has appeared in a data leak FAQs

How does Apple know my password was in a data leak?

According to Apple, iOS devices use "strong cryptographic techniques to regularly check derivations of your passwords against a list of leaked passwords." This applies to iPhone, iPad, Mac and other Apple devices that may be signed in under your Apple ID or using your iCloud keychain. This method does not reveal to Apple your accounts or passwords, including your iPhone password.

Should I change my password if it was in a data leak?

You should absolutely change passwords immediately if you've been informed that you've been a victim of a data leak. The best course of action is to detect compromised passwords (which may apply to more than one site if you, like many, repeat passwords) and replace them with a strong password.

Can an antivirus protect me from a data leak?

Some antivirus packages such as Norton 360 now come with password monitoring in addition to VPN access and protection from identity theft, malware and ransomware attacks.

Does it matter what my password is?

Not all passwords are created equal. Passwords with special characters, uppercase and lowercase letters, and at least 16 characters in total have the best chance of not being compromised. The tricky part is that those types of passwords are also the hardest to remember, which is why most cybersecurity-conscious users have employed the use of a password manager.

Summary of Money's what does it mean when your password has appeared in a data leak

Having your password appear in a data leak can be a scary thing, especially if you use the same password for multiple accounts. The best way to protect yourself from a data leak is to practice good password hygiene by never sharing or reusing passwords, setting up two-factor authentication on your most important accounts and using a trustworthy password manager to assure password security in the future.

If you are the victim of a data leak, you should change your compromised passwords immediately as well as continue to monitor your accounts for possible data breaches in the future.

For more information on how to handle data leaks safely, check out these four steps on how to protect yourself from a data breach.