Data theft

Updated: 07/06/2021 by Computer Hope
Identity theft using shoulder surfing

Data theft or information theft is a term used to describe when data is illegally copied or taken from a business or other individuals. Commonly, this data is user information such as passwords, social security numbers, credit card information, personal information, or other confidential corporate information.

Because this information is illegally obtained, when the individual who stole this information is apprehended, they're prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. How they're prosecuted varies depending on where in the world they're located and where the data theft occurred.


Although this term is described as "theft," it usually does not describe the action of taking the information away from someone else. Instead, when data theft occurs, the attacker is usually only copying or duplicating the information for their use.

How does data theft happen?

Data theft can occur because of any of the following reasons.

  • Phishing - Users falling for phishing attacks is a common method of gaining access to personal information or user account information where personal information can be found.
  • Bad password - Using a common password or the same password on every website is how an attacker can gain access to an account. Also, if the company storing your information doesn't have good password practices, an attacker could gain access to all customer accounts.
  • Database or server problems - If a company storing your information is attacked because of a database or server problem, the attacker could access to all customers' personal information.
  • Publicly available information - A lot of publicly available information can be found through searches on the Internet and information users post on their social networks.
  • Bad employee - Employees who work for a company have access to a lot of customers' personal information. If an employee has malicious intentions, this information could be stolen.
  • Shoulder surfing - If you're using a computer in an area where someone could shoulder surf, they could watch your screen and keyboard to steal information like your login details.

For recommendations on protecting yourself from all of the above threats, see: How to protect yourself while on the Internet.

Why would someone want to steal my data?

Most data theft occurs because a malicious person wants to sell that information or use it for identity theft. If enough information is known, that information could be used to get access to more secure accounts, set up credit cards under your name, or use your identity for another reason.

What should I do if I'm a victim of data theft?

If you believe you're a victim of data theft, see the following link for suggestions for protecting yourself.

Data, Hacker, Identity theft, Security terms, Theft