Are Your Frequent-Flyer Miles Secure?

As this week's data breach at US Airways reminds us, even the computer systems of the country's largest companies are not hack-proof.

Although full details are unlikely to be forthcoming from US Airways, WSOC TV in North Carolina reported on Wednesday that 7,700 Dividend Miles accounts had been compromised and that some miles had indeed been stolen.

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Criminals tend to be rational actors, and rational actors are goal-driven. What, then, were the hackers after in breaching US Airways' computer security? Specifically: stealing miles to what end?

Miles have value, of course. But to unlock that value without implicating yourself is no easy matter.

Have award tickets issued in your own name, leading the authorities right back to you? Dumb! Maybe you could have tickets issued in the names of people to whom you sell tickets. But then the buyers are in a position to point the finger at you. Redeem the tickets for merchandise? It must be shipped, either to you (guilty!) or to an accomplice. Gift cards? Same problem.

Even assuming a malefactor has the Dividend Miles' members usernames and account passwords, there's simply no easy way to make use of the miles without leaving an easy-to-follow trail of evidence.

Perhaps that explains why there are so few instances of frequent-flyer mile theft.

In the US Airways case, the airline apparently restored the missing miles promptly, and the affected Dividend Miles members weren't affected for long. But it's still an experience best avoided, if possible.

If you've ever been the victim of credit card fraud, you know the drill and the outcome. Ultimately the unauthorized charges will be reversed. But not before you've spent plenty of time on the phone with the credit card company and filling out claim forms. It's an inconvenience and a time-waster.

In the end, there's not much you can do to ensure your account's security. Constantly changing your password might help, but it's a lot of work to avoid such an infrequent occurrence. And unless the change were made immediately following the data theft, it would be for naught anyway.

Your best hope—and it's a realistic one—is that most hackers are smart enough to know that frequent-flyer miles just aren't worth stealing.

Reader Reality Check

Have your frequent-flyer miles ever been stolen? How?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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