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Dealing with the Home Depot data breach

With Home Depot confirming the suspected theft of customer credit card numbers, consumers are once again in a position to play defense with their financial lives.

Home Depot data breach may affect more than 6... 01:41

Those affected include anyone who shopped at a Home Depot in the U.S. or Canada since April. As it was with last year's attack on data collected by Target stores, tens of millions of Americans are potential targets of both identity thieves and frauds. And, like Target, Home Depot is offering free identity theft protection for a year.

While such protection can be helpful in terms of alerting you to a thief trying to get credit in your name, it isn't designed to be a complete defense. Identity theft protection is like having an extra set of eyes checking to see if anyone, including you, is accessing your credit history. If you take the free deal, be wary of offers to upgrade and take subscriptions.

A more proactive, and more extreme measure would be to do a credit/security freeze, which would not allow anyone to access your credit file until you lift the freeze. So, if you went to a department store and wanted to sign up for the store card you wouldn't be able to until you lifted the freeze. Costs to place a freeze vary by state, and range from free to up to $10.

While identity theft is possible, quite often thieves need more than they've taken in a data breach to be able start opening lines of credit in your name. That means that phishing attacks, when thieves send emails trying to dupe consumers into giving up personal and financial information, tend to ramp up after data thefts. Do not respond to an email, no matter how official it looks, with any personal information unless you have independently verified who is asking for the information and why.

More likely than identity theft, given that the card numbers are already being sold on the black market, is the possibility a thief would run up charges on your cards. In that case, it's on you to identify the fraudulent charges and file a fraud report with your credit card issuer and dispute the charge.

What that means is being vigilant about checking credit card bills (not everyone is).

There's a bit more at stake with debit cards since money is drawn directly out of your bank account. In other words, the thieves have your money instead of the bank's. It's even more important to spot those charges more quickly because it can take time (it varies by bank) to replace funds taken from an account due to fraud.

A consumer who reports a fraudulent debit charge within 60 days of receiving a bill is usually not legally liable. After that, you could potentially be responsible for up to $500.

Home Depot said, at this point, there's no evidence that PIN numbers were taken. However, debit card numbers could still be used for purchases rather than to draw cash. If you used your debit card at a Home Depot, you could request your bank issue you a new card, which would render the old number useless.

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