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When CNN aired George Zimmerman’s Social Security number, it put the defendant in the Trayvon Martin murder trial at risk of identity theft and other types of fraud.

During its live coverage of the trial, the network broadcast a police document that contained Zimmerman’s birth date, address, phone number and SSN. The information was immediately picked up and shared on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Other news networks that had been in commercial break skipped over the document.

Typically the Court Clerk redacts evidence containing sensitive information, CNN said, “and that didn’t happen in this instance.”

Data breaches are an unfortunate sign of the times. The inadvertent exposure of personal information is a daily occurrence for organizations of all sizes—from small businesses, to international corporations and, as the CNN incident illustrates, even news networks.

  • At the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City last year, parade-goers were showered with confetti made of shredded confidential documents from the Nassau County Police Department. The SSNs of police officers, addresses, bank information and other details about crimes was exposed.
  • During President Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last fall, the camera cut away to show an attendee’s Medicare card—which contained the person’s SSN.

And these were just examples of breaches caught on camera or in public. This year alone more than 1.2 million breaches have occurred, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. If you suspect your SSN has been exposed, take immediate action to protect your identity:

  1. Know what’s at risk. Risk is high when SSNs, birth dates and addresses are stolen. This information has a long shelf life and can be traded internationally among organized criminals. It’s valuable because it can spawn dozens of new accounts.
  2. Review your credit report for fraud activity. After about 30 days (long enough for fraudulent activity to show up), log on to annualcreditreport.com to get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Look for any unusual activity.
  3. Pay extra attention to other accounts, statements and documents. Also look for signs of fraud in your medical files, on your Social Security statement, in insurance claims, or in public records. Check statements for charges that aren’t yours.
  4. Place a fraud alert on your credit file. An alert placed with any one of the three major credit bureaus signals to potential creditors that you could be a victim of identity theft.
  5. Consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. If your SSN was exposed in a data breach, you may be offered a year of free credit monitoring. Take it!

Finally, check with your bank, insurer or financial planner to see if they offer identity theft management services. Some institutions offer this service for free, as a perk for being a member or account holder.

Victor Searcy is director of fraud operations at IDentity Theft 911.

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