Age of the Hack: Half of US Adults Hit This Year

NEW YORK — Why are we all getting hacked? It’s simple economics.

Criminals want our data. Yes, even yours. It’s more valuable than you think.

Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton are a special case. Hackers target them for nude photos, because their private lives are prized treasure for creeps.

For the rest of us, it’s all about our credit cards and identities. That’s why hackers likely targeted the Home Depot’s payments systems this year, along with Albertson’s, Target, Michaels, Neiman Marcus, P.F. Chang’s and SuperValu.

Think you’re immune? Think again. As CNNMoney reported exclusively, half of American adults were hacked this year.

Here’s what hackers are after — and what they’re getting.

Credit cards: Every time you swipe a debit card at a store, that transaction is processed on a computer network. That network is connected to the Internet. Hackers break into those computers from far away, infect them with a virus and steal card data.

That’s how Target lost 40 million debit and credit cards last year. The episode has cost Target $146 million so far. Investors got lower returns. The CEO was sacked.

This type of hack has become more common in recent years.

And credit card hacks will keep happening. Retailers haven’t yet figured out how to guard their Internet-connected payment systems. Plus, we’re swiping cards that are fundamentally insecure. Magnetic stripes use 1950s technology. It’s easy to grab their data, slap it on blank cards and sell them online.

Making matters worse, the United States has yet to join the rest of the world and upgrade to chip-enabled smart cards, which are harder to reproduce. Everyone is hurting.

Remember: The costs of hacking get passed along to you, the consumer.

Then there’s the annoyance every time a bank reissues your card. It costs banks $3 to $5 each, and you go a week without a card. Those costs get passed onto you as well.

Identities: They’re not just after your money. Hackers want to impersonate you too.

Why? On the black market, old credit cards only fetch $1 each. Medical records go for $50 a pop.

They’re more valuable, because criminals use your Social Security number to fraudulently bill insurance, Medicare or Medicaid or get prescriptions for controlled drugs. The FBI estimates that fraud makes up 3% to 10% of the $2.5 trillion the United States spends on health care annually. That adds up to a whopping $75 billion to $250 billion a year. Taxpayers everywhere are footing the bill.

And scammers can steal your tax refund by filing claims in your name, freezing future tax refunds for years. It’s so widespread, the IRS paid $3.6 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2012.

There’s not much you can do to stop them from getting your personal information — it is more accessible than ever. We type our Social Security numbers into online job applications and loan requests. Medical records, by default, now live on hospital computer servers.

That’s why it’s so alarming that 90% of hospitals and clinics lose their patients’ data to data breaches and hackers stole data on 4.5 million patients when they broke into a hospital network this year.

Identity theft can be much worse than credit card fraud. Your credit history can be ruined. Good luck buying a house. Someone can rack up a criminal record in your name. Cleaning that up is a mess.

What you can do: We’ve moved our entire lives online, yet most of us refuse to take the proper precautions.

Retailers, hospitals, government agencies, teenagers, adults — we’re all guilty. We stupidly reuse the same, short password. We answer easy-to-guess security questions honestly.

So here’s what to do: Avoid using your debit card — ever. If it’s compromised, criminals can empty your checking account. Use cash instead. Or use your credit card, because then you’re not liable for fraud.

Change your passwords frequently, and use better ones. Password123 is easy to remember but easy to crack. Something like H&uy91oP is hard to remember but still easy to crack. Use a long, wacky passphrase like, My52ndDinosaurHouseIsOnFiiire!.

But you’re probably not going to do anything after reading this. And that’s why you’ll keep getting hacked.

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