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Consumer Alert: The Great Credit Card Heist

Thursday, 22 Jan 2009 | 1:22 PM ET

It could be one of the largest data breaches – ever.

On Tuesday, with all eyes on the inauguration, Heartland Payment Systems, a company that processes 100 million credit card transactions for 1750,000 merchants every month, announced that its computer system was hacked. Last year. Hundreds of millions of credit card numbers were potentially exposed.

This is not a new phenomenon. In 2007, the owner of TJ Maxx and Marshalls reported that 46 million credit and debt card numbers had been compromised. Recent statistics show data breaches increased nearly 50% last year from the previous year.

Consumer Alert: Credit
Discussing whether your credit has been compromised, with CNBC's Carmen Wong Ulrich.

The scary part is that for consumers, there’s nothing we can do to ever fully protect ourselves. You can do everything right, John Ulzheimer says – from securing your information online to reading your monthly statements and keeping them in a safe place, and you can still be a victim of identity theft.

Robert Baldwin, president of Heartland Payment Systems, explained that in this case the crime was “highly sophisticated” and involved an international group of cyber thieves who were able to infiltrate the company’s systems and exploit them with viruses that leaked certain amounts of credit card data. The attack was nothing short of a “nightmare” to the company, Baldwin said.

While the crime took place over the course of more than a year, it was only discovered last week after two forensic auditing firms spent weeks investigating, he said.

As these crimes get more sophisticated and criminals refine their techniques, perhaps it is time for a stricter policy of disclosure, says Jeff Taylor. The only way consumers can feel like they have the power to protect themselves is if they know as soon as they have potentially been exposed to a threat.

>>Web Extra: Hacker Heist Update

Ulzheimer would just assume put the burden of proof back in the hands of the credit card companies. Right now, if you feel your identity has been compromised or if you find charges on your statements you never made, it is your responsibility to prove your innocence. How about the other way around?

In the meantime, the most power we have against identity theft cases big and small is to be vigilant. Scour – don’t just look over – your monthly statements. Report anything out of the ordinarily immediately. Don’t let yourself become a victim.