Three major companies and a popular crowdfunding website joined the illustrious ranks of the hacked last week. At the forefront of media attention was mobile service provider T-Mobile who had to explain to nearly 15 million of its customers that anyone who had their credit checked while in the process of applying for T-Mobile service would now be enjoying the “benefits” a near perfect (for identity thieves) exposure of their data, including name, date of birth, social security number, addresses, phone numbers and even government-issued ID numbers. Online brokerage Scottstrade suffered a breach exposing nearly 5 million customers over a year ago that they didn’t even know about until informed by authorities investigating the matter. Rounding out the list of big names is everyone’s favorite business bad-boy, Donald Trump and his Trump Hotels business, of which seven luxury hotels appeared to have suffered a year-long breach in security that allowed thieves to siphon off guest credit and debit card data. And if that wasn’t enough, data thieves also managed to penetrate Patreon, a website used primarily by independent artists and entrepreneurs for fundraising, and exposed over 2 million users emails, passwords as well as their specific site activity.
What this means for you:
By this point, if you haven’t at least racked up two years or more of “free” identity theft protection from the numerous data breaches, you have been living the life of a true luddite and should share the secrets of your success (just not online, right?). What I’ve found among many of my clients, friends and family is that most have just furrowed their brows, shaken a symbolic fist at the faceless enemy/internet/corporation and more or less accepted this as a new fact of life. Many of them haven’t even taken advantage of the credit protection services offered as compensation for being a victim of one or more data breaches. As I’ve mentioned in the past, most Americans are now suffering a near textbook-perfect example of bad news fatigue, primarily because it seems like nothing can be done. But there are things you can do:
- Have a look at Have I Been Pwned to see if any of your email addresses show up. If they do, you should change your passwords, especially if the account that was “pwned” was associated with a password you use elsewhere.
- Sign up for any identity/credit protection services offered to you if they are still available. While they may not be able to prevent an attempt to use your identity, you are much more likely to catch it happening, and these companies can help recover from damage caused by the theft.
- Most critical online services such as banking and email offer two-factor authentication which can provide a much higher degree of security. Even though a hacker may have a password for your account, they won’t be able to access accounts protected by two-factor authentication.
- Understand what data you or your company is responsible for, and if you use vendors to process any of that data, make sure they are exercising proper diligence in securing their perimeter and your data. In the case of T-Mobile’s breach, credit-check vendor Experian was the source of the breach that will likely result in significant financial and reputation distress.
Lest you think the tech giant missed having a finger in this particular pie, Google surprised no one by debuting their own wireless carrier service earlier this week. Though the service is invite-only at the moment and only offered on Google’s own Nexus 6, they’ve negotiated a deal with both Sprint and T-Mobile to piggy back on their existing, nation-wide infrastructure to create a coverage area without having to build it. According to Google, the limited launch of this service is more of an experiment as opposed to a direct challenge of reigning champs ATT and Verizon. The major differentiator to their service? A low-cost, pay as you use it, data plan with data tethering, wi-fi calling that can also be used from other mobile devices such as tablets and laptops.
What this means for you:
Unless you have an invite in hand, you can’t jump onto the Google Wireless bandwagon yet, and if Google stays true to the “we’re just testing the waters” mantra, maybe not ever. But if Google can deliver a solid service for a fraction of the price that the big 4 carriers are charging now, it’s going to have repercussions on the entire mobile landscape. As they’ve done with Google Fiber, this particular foray into the bloody wireless markets is an exercise in forcing a change in the status quo where major carriers are squabbling over how to charge consumers more for less service. However, Google surely has an agenda that includes profit (they are publicy held), and you musn’t forget that the largest revenue stream for them is advertising and data mining. The mad scramble for dominance in the mobile data market is about as close as we’ll ever get to seeing a modern gold rush, and you can bet Google has been preparing to stake a claim since before you and I even knew there was “gold in them thar hills!”
In a move that is strongly reflective of its overseas ownership, T-Mobile has announced that its customers now have the option to purchase cellular services without having to commit to a contract. Unlike the US, a large majority of European and Asian cell phone subscribers routinely purchase cell phone services on a monthly basis as opposed to the 1 and 2-year contracts familiar to most Americans. T-Mobiles new pre-paid plans start at $50/month for unlimited voice, texting and data, with a couple of small catches: data may be unlimited, but access to T-Mobile’s high-speed data network is capped at 500MB for the $50 plan (Increased to 2GB for $60, and truly unlimited for $70/month). The other gotcha? Pre-paid plans will no longer subsidize the cost of expensive phones that can be gotten for “free” with 2-year contracts, at least not in the manner with which you may be familiar.
What this means for you:
Of the major carriers in the US, T-Mobile is in fourth place in terms of market, and they trail third-place carrier Sprint by a large margin. Lacking the marketing muscle to go head to head with Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile is attempting to disrupt the US market by offering plans that are common-place and popular overseas, but still relatively untested in the US. Many analysts believe that the US cellular market will grow to mirror its overseas counterparts, but that convergence is still at least 2-4 years away.
One of the key differences in T-Mobile’s plan is how they plan to allow consumers to still “subsidize” the cost of new phones. In a traditional 2-year plan as offered by the major carriers, the cost of a new phone is incorporated into the monthly subscription fee, and presumably at a rate that pays off the phone in two years time. T-Mobile offers a similar deal with their pre-paid plan, but instead of offering a single monthly amount, they actually break out the cost of the monthly payment for your new phone.
Why is this important? With T-Mobile, once you have finished paying off the phone (which can be done on their 2-year schedule, or sooner should you decide to just buy out the remaining balance), your monthly bill will be reduced to just the amount owed for services. With the traditional contract offered by the big carriers, your monthly bill will stay the same even though you have paid off your phone. This is no big deal if you decide to switch carriers, but they are banking on the fact that you might not. So far, this has paid off, given the popularity of this type of contract, but maybe T-Mobile can bring disrupt enough of the market to put some strain on the Verizon/AT&T duopoly in place in the US.
(Full disclosure: I’m a T-Mobile customer on 2-year contract, paying down my brand-new Nexus 4. I’m paying approximately $80/month which includes a monthly payment of $20 for my phone.)