Companies have left people’s sensitive personal and financial information in all the wrong places — in dumpsters, on car seats, and even in employees’ backpacks.

Now, the FTC has sued two debt sellers for posting spreadsheets with the sensitive information of more than 70,000 people on a public website, making it — along with information about a debt they might owe — available to anyone who happened on the site.

The companies involved were debt brokers. Instead of collecting debts, debt brokers sell information about people who might owe money on a debt to interested debt collectors. Typically, when selling debt, a broker will give potential buyers general information about the debts they’re selling and the people who allegedly owe the debts.

But the information these companies posted was anything but general: it included people’s bank account and credit card numbers, dates of birth, contact information, employers’ names, and the amount of money a person might owe. Besides violating people’s privacy, the FTC says, posting this information publicly put people at risk of having their identities stolen or being targeted by scammers pretending to be debt collectors.

These cases and several others the FTC has brought recently make one thing very clear: businesses that hold people’s personal financial information are required by law to protect the information and keep it secure. The companies involved will be contacting people whose information was disclosed.

You don’t always know when your information has been wrongfully exposed, but here are steps you can take when you do:

1) Place a fraud alert on your credit file and get your free credit reports. A fraud alert tells creditors to contact you before they open new accounts or change your current account. Your credit reports can show you if someone has tried to open accounts or create debts in your name.

2) If you find suspicious activity, follow the FTC’s step-by-step guidance for dealing with identity theft.

3) If a debt collector contacts you about a debt you believe is the result of identity theft, dispute the debt.

4) Before paying a debt, take steps to verify that the debt collector is legitimate, and know your rights under the law. Never give out or confirm financial information or other sensitive data to someone who contacts you. Fake debt collectors may already have sensitive data about you that they may try to use to trick you into revealing more information.

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