Beware: On a smaller scale, breaches happen every day

Rows of Target carts
Rows of carts await customers at a Target store in Chicago in 2012.
M. Spencer Green/AP

The security breach at Target may have been big in scope, but it's really just a wholesale version of something that happens at a retail level all the time, experts say.

The customers whose credit card information may have been stolen could have limited their risk with a few simple strategies, said Heidi Moore, U.S. finance and economics editor for The Guardian.

For now, Moore told The Daily Circuit, people who shopped with a credit or debit card at Target between Nov. 29 and Dec. 15 should take these steps:

Check their statements for any suspicious charges.
Call their bank or credit card company. "Tell them that you had shopped at Target during that time and to take extra care, or put an extra alert on your account," Moore said.
"Then you should think about getting rid of that card, or switching to another card."
People who opened Target card accounts between Nov. 29 and Dec. 15 should watch those accounts very carefully.

But Moore recommends measures that consumers could use at any time, not just when a major breach is in the news. "This happens to people every single day," she said, "so it doesn't really make sense not to go shopping just because you think your credit card is going to be stolen. The idea is to be vigilant and then to take quick action if it is."

Moore has a separate, prepaid card that she uses for most of her daily shopping. That way, if her card or information is stolen, thieves will have access only to the amount of money on the card.

"Don't use a card with a high credit limit at any big-box store," she cautioned, "not just Target, but anywhere where the number could possibly be stolen. And then when you get home, check your charges."

If there is any good news in Thursday's announcement, it is that the perpetrators likely have already done whatever damage they can do.

"It's very rare to see charges that come a week or two weeks after a credit card has been stolen," Moore said. "Most of those charges do happen right away. The thieves know that they're working with a ticking clock and that once people discover that the card is gone or the number has been stolen, they'll cancel it. They will immediately go on shopping sprees."

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