By Aimee Picchi, CBS Money Watch
New York, NY -- Chances are, you or someone you know has been impacted by the massive theft of about 40 million credit and debit card accounts at Target's stores.
The fraud reportedly lasted between Nov. 27 to Dec. 15, encompassing Black Friday and marking a time when many Americans visited the retailer for holiday shopping. Even worse, the breach reportedly involved almost all of Target's 1,797 stores in the U.S.
So what should you do if you shopped at Target during the past few weeks?
First, check your credit card statement, BankRate.com credit card analyst Janna Herron tells CBS MoneyWatch. If you see charges that you or a family member didn't make, call your bank to alert them to the fraudulent charges. The good news is that consumers aren't responsible for unauthorized charges to a credit card.
"This is something everyone should do anyways during the holidays, when fraud goes up," Herron notes. "Your liability for a data breach is absolutely nothing, and that's federal law."
Even if you see a small unauthorized charge on the card, alert your bank, notes Yaron Samid, chief executive of BillGuard, which makes an app that tracks credit-card and debit-card accounts for consumers. Some sophisticated hackers will place "microcharges" on cards, since many consumers fail to notice them or don't bother to report them. Such cards are then considered viable by hackers, who may sell the numbers to other criminals at a later date, he notes.
If there are unauthorized charges, the credit-card issuer will remove the charges from your account, cancel the card and issue you a new one.
Some customers may have already found out about the breach through their banks, as credit card issuers are already reaching out to customers with suspicious activity on their cards.
The next step is to call the credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- to alert them about the breach and to place a "fraud alert" on your account. That alert will extend for 90 days and inform any lender pulling your credit that they need to go through extra steps to verify your identity.
Finally, in about one or two months, check your credit report to make sure it's accurate, Herron recommends. The extra time allows the credit-reporting agencies to track your new card.
"The good news is, from what Target has said, what was stolen was card data and not personally identifying information," Herron notes. "Unless they get your Social Security number and address, it's really hard for whoever is behind the breach to apply for credit in your name."
Nevertheless, one question that remains is how the breach will affect people who used their debit cards at Target. While the retailer hasn't said the breach affected PIN numbers, consumers should be aware that debit cards don't have the same type of protections as credit cards, Herron notes.
"If your debit card is stolen, your losses can be unlimited, depending on what's in the bank," she notes. "If you have to shop with the money you have, then I would pull cash out" of the bank for purchases, rather than relying on a debit card.
Below are the numbers for the credit reporting agencies:
- Equifax: (800) 525-6285
- Experian: (800) 397-3742
- TransUnion: (800) 680-7289