How to find out if your data was exposed in an online breach – and how to protect yourself

Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg
  • Companies and government organizations are regularly breached, exposing people’s personal data.
  • Hackers buy and sell breached data in order to impersonate people or carry out scams.
  • Here’s how you can find out if your data has been leaked online and protect yourself.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More records are stored online than ever – and it’s becoming increasingly common for large swaths of personal data to fall into the hands of cybercriminals.

Over 4 billion records have been stolen or accidentally leaked in the past decade, according to data collected by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, with more than 7,000 separate breaches in that time, and the frequency of mega-breaches that compromise tens or hundreds of millions of people’s data is on the rise.

Most recently, a hacker published the personal data of 533 million Facebook users online for free, Insider reported Saturday, including names, phone numbers, email addresses, account IDs, and bios.

Cybercriminals use leaked personal data as a starting point for countless other scams. Stolen records are regularly circulated online by cybercriminals and used for fraud, while hackers can try to break into companies’ systems to deploy ransomware or extort them.

Here’s how to determine whether your data has been exposed in a breach and how to protect yourself.

Check whether your information was exposed using free online tools

Companies are legally required to notify users when their data is breached, but those disclosures are often made through vague public statements, and individual consumers can be left in the dark. Thankfully, security researchers keep exhaustive records of past data points that you can use to check whether you were affected by a breach.

One such resource is HaveIBeenPwned.com, a database maintained by security analyst Troy Hunt. The site lets anyone enter their email address and cross-references it with more than 10 billion accounts compromised in past breaches to determine whether they’ve been “pwned,” or compromised.

In some cases, passwords are also exposed in data breaches. Hunt’s site also provides a password search that lets people know if their password has ever fallen into the hands of hackers.

If you were affected by a breach, take steps to secure your accounts

If you find out your personal information was stolen in a breach, it’s time to protect your identity. Doing so depends on the severity of the data stolen – if your social security number or drivers’ license number were stolen, you’ll need to file a report with the appropriate government agency.

But in most cases, data breaches include less sensitive information like emails and usernames. If your email address was exposed, you should change your password to that email account and set up multifactor authentication to secure your email.

If you find out your password itself was exposed, you can no longer count on that password to keep your accounts safe, and should immediately change your passwords on all affected accounts. Setting up multifactor authentication is also a best practice.

Finally, stay alert for any suspicious activity on any of your accounts. If you do detect suspicious activity, change your password and contact that account’s administrator.

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533 million Facebook users’ phone numbers and personal data have been leaked online

facebook ceo mark zuckerberg
  • The personal data of over 500 million Facebook users has been posted online in a low-level hacking forum.
  • The data includes phone numbers, full names, location, email address, and biographical information.
  • Security researchers warn that the data could be used by hackers to impersonate people and commit fraud.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A user in a low level hacking forum has published the phone numbers and personal data of hundreds of millions of Facebook users for free online.

The exposed data includes personal information of over 533 million Facebook users from 106 countries, including over 32 million records on users in the US, 11 million on users in the UK, and 6 million on users in India. It includes their phone numbers, Facebook IDs, full names, locations, birthdates, bios, and – in some cases – email addresses.

Insider reviewed a sample of the leaked data and verified several records by matching known Facebook users’ phone numbers with the IDs listed in the data set. We also verified records by testing email addresses from the data set in Facebook’s password reset feature, which can be used to partially reveal a user’s phone number.

The leaked data could provide valuable information to cybercriminals who use people’s personal information to impersonate them or scam them into handing over login credentials, according to Alon Gal, CTO of cybercrime intelligence firm Hudson Rock, who first discovered the leaked data on Saturday.

“A database of that size containing the private information such as phone numbers of a lot of Facebook’s users would certainly lead to bad actors taking advantage of the data to perform social engineering attacks [or] hacking attempts,” Gal told Insider.

Facebook did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gal first discovered the leaked data in January when a user in the same hacking forum advertised an automated bot that could provide phone numbers for hundreds of millions of Facebook users in exchange for a price. Motherboard reported on that bot’s existence at the time and verified that the data was legitimate.

Now, the entire dataset has been posted on the hacking forum for free, making it widely available to anyone with rudimentary data skills.

It’s not the first time that a huge number of Facebook users’ phone numbers have been found exposed online. A vulnerability that was uncovered in 2019 allowed millions of people’s phone numbers to be scraped from Facebook’s servers in violation of its terms of service. Facebook said that vulnerability was patched in August 2019.

Facebook previously vowed to crack down on mass data-scraping after Cambridge Analytica scraped the data of 80 million users in violation of Facebook’s terms of service to target voters with political ads in the 2016 election.

Gal said that, from a security standpoint, there’s not much Facebook can do to help users affected by the breach since their data is already out in the open – but he added that Facebook could notify users so they could remain vigilant for possible phishing schemes or fraud using their personal data.

“Individuals signing up to a reputable company like Facebook are trusting them with their data and Facebook [is] supposed to treat the data with utmost respect,” Gal said. “Users having their personal information leaked is a huge breach of trust and should be handled accordingly.”

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The Microsoft Exchange hack shows attackers are working ‘smarter, not harder,’ experts say

Microsoft.
Microsoft announced a hack in its Exchange email servers on March 3.

  • Security experts said the Microsoft Exchange attack means hackers are working “smarter, not harder.”
  • The recent hack has received less attention since victims were small- to mid-size organizations.
  • But the hack could be a “test run” for a larger attack, meaning Americans must pay attention.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

News about a hack that impacted hundreds of thousands of global organizations has largely flown under the radar.

On March 3, Microsoft announced Hafnium, a Chinese-sponsored hacker group, exploited vulnerabilities in its Exchange email servers. Microsoft said hackers left behind “web shells,” or tools that allow bad actors to access victims’ systems remotely after initial access.

The attack impacted hundreds of thousands of organizations globally and 30,000 in the US. Experts recently told Insider’s Aaron Holmes the hack could be “1,000 times more crippling” than the widely publicized SolarWinds attack.

Cyber security experts say though the Exchange server hack has not shocked Americans the way the SolarWinds attack did last year, but citizens must pay attention because of the likely increase in hacks this year and the different ways bad actors are exploiting victims.

Read more: Congress looks to tap big companies like Microsoft to prevent the next SolarWinds cybersecurity disaster, but critics warn that approach could stifle innovation

“This attack underscores just how vulnerable even the most secure organizations or individuals are when targeted by skilled cybercriminals,” Marcin Klecyznski, the CEO of Malwarebytes, told Insider.

Why you should care about the attack

One takeaway from the Exchange Server attack is that no one is safe from a hack.

Microsoft is an industry leader that accelerated cloud-based security efforts as offices transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. But getting hacked means companies need to develop software with security in every step, as well as have an incident response plan to patch flaws and notify users, per Jonathan Knudsen, a senior security strategist at Synopsys Software Integrity Group.

The hack also suggests cybercriminals are working “smarter, not harder,” said Klecyznski. Bad actors know IT security teams’ resources have become more stretched due to the rise in remote work, and hackers are looking to advantage of that gap in oversight, he said.

Read more: Cybersecurity execs from Visa, Netflix, Uber, and more share their underrated security tips, from vetting supply chains to ‘devaluing data’

Knudsen advises anyone responsible for a Microsoft Exchange server to patch the system and check for signs of an attack. Systems administrators also need to update servers and carefully examine systems at all times, because hackers can have access to a device for months or years before someone notices.

Kelvin Coleman, the executive director at the National Cyber Security Alliance, said security experts are still unsure of the hackers’ motivations, and whether the incident may have been a “test run” for a larger attack – which makes protecting user accounts with quality passwords and multi-factor authentication imperative.

“It can impact a lot of things if folks don’t have confidence that their information is protected and secure,” Coleman said.

How the Microsoft Exchange hack differs from other attacks

SolarWinds hackers were able to spy on federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and Treasury Department. Coleman said the Microsoft attack has received relatively less media attention due to the victims being small- to mid-size organizations and local governments, but that still leaves systems and personal information vulnerable.

The attack also differs from others because hackers did not need to interact with victims to get access to their information, said Ben Read, the senior manager for Cyber Espionage Analysis in FireEye’s Intelligence unit. Unlike a phishing scam, which relies on users clicking into a link with malware, the Exchange Server attack gave hackers more control.

Read said that, though this isn’t the first time this kind of attack happened, there’s been a rise in vulnerabilities in web-facing applications in the past 18 months. Analysts predict cyber attacks will dramatically increase this year as hackers exploit uncertainty around COVID-19 and take advantage of remote workers.

“The sheer number of victims makes it a big deal,” Read said in an interview with Insider. “Anyone who hasn’t taken mitigation efforts…they’re vulnerable as other groups kind of figure out how to exploit these vulnerabilities.”

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