Employee Data Theft: Warning Signs & How to Prevent

employee data theft

How safe is your business from an employee stealing data?

Employee data theft refers to the unauthorized access, transfer, or misuse of a company’s confidential data by its employees. Whether driven by malice or negligence, this type of data theft poses a significant risk to your business’s security and reputation. As incidents of insider threats rise, it becomes crucial for companies to identify the warning signs and implement the necessary preventive measures.

In this article, we’ll examine the common indicators of potential data theft by employees and share effective strategies for protecting your valuable information from these internal threats.

Behavioral Red Flags

Understanding the behavioral red flags that may signal potential data theft is crucial for preventing security breaches. When you can identify these warning signs early, your company can proactively protect sensitive information and mitigate insider risks. Here are some key behavioral red flags to keep an eye on:

Changes in Work Habits

Noticeable changes in work habits can often be a clear sign of potential data theft. One major red flag is working unusual or excessive hours. Employees who plan to steal data might access systems outside their regular work schedule to avoid detection. This often means logging in late at night or on weekends or taking unexpected, long breaks to transfer or hide data without raising suspicion.

Such changes from their usual work patterns can be a deliberate attempt to exploit times when fewer colleagues are around, making them less likely to be noticed. Managers should keep an eye on these shifts, as they could point to malicious intentions.

Accessing Files or Systems Not Related to Their Job

If an employee starts poking around files or systems that have nothing to do with their job, it might suggest that they’re trying to steal information. Employees are typically granted access to information and systems necessary for their specific role. It’s usually a red flag if someone begins looking into areas they shouldn’t.

This might include digging through confidential documents, trying to access sensitive databases, or frequently visiting secure parts of the internal network they don’t have permission for. Managers should monitor access logs for unauthorized attempts to access restricted information.

Displaying Signs of Stress, Frustration, or Dissatisfaction

Employees displaying signs of stress, frustration, or dissatisfaction can be a warning sign that something is about to happen. Employees becoming increasingly unhappy or stressed may feel disconnected from the organization and its goals.

Disgruntled employees might steal data to retaliate or get a competitive edge before they leave the company. This could look like being more irritable, complaining often, or their job performance dropping noticeably. They might feel undervalued or mistreated, pushing them to take data as payback or to help out a future employer.

Excessive Printing or Copying of Sensitive Documents

Employees typically need to print or copy documents relevant to their work, but when this activity becomes frequent and involves sensitive information, it raises concerns. Checking print and copy logs can help spot unusual activity, like an employee printing a bunch of sensitive files. 

This might mean they’re trying to collect info for malicious reasons. Often, employees may print or copy sensitive files to physically remove them from the office or to have a backup in case their digital access is revoked.

Suspicious Network Activity

Suspicious network activity includes unusual patterns such as accessing large amounts of data, logging in at odd hours, or connecting to unauthorized external devices. Large data transfers to personal devices or cloud storage are especially concerning.

Employees might try to steal data by using USB flash drives, personal email accounts, or cloud services like Dropbox. This often involves moving a lot of data or accessing files that aren’t needed for their job.

Accessing Systems or Databases Unrelated to Their Department

Employees who access systems outside their usual scope of work may be trying to steal sensitive data. This often means logging into databases, apps, or corporate networks that have nothing to do with their job.

Such unauthorized access can indicate malicious intentions, as the employee might be trying to collect confidential info for financial gain or to hurt the company.

Technical Indicators

While behavioral red flags can be extremely helpful, you shouldn’t forget the technical indicators of employee data theft. These signs often involve suspicious activities that can be detected through monitoring and analysis of digital interactions.

Here are some of the main technical indicators to pay attention to:

Use of Unauthorized USB Drives or External Hard Drives

When employees use unauthorized USB drives or external hard drives, it’s a big sign of possible data theft. They might use personal storage devices to copy and take data, getting around company security measures. This could involve plugging in personal USB drives or external hard drives to work computers, which is a major data security risk.

These devices make it easy for employees to transfer large amounts of data quickly and discretely. That’s why you should set up systems to flag any unapproved external storage devices that get connected. Also, watch out for sudden spikes in data transfers to these devices, as it’s especially worrying.

Disabling of Security Tools or Software

If someone tries to turn off antivirus programs, firewalls, or other security measures, they’re probably trying to hide their actions or access sensitive info without getting caught. This behavior should raise immediate concerns because it weakens the security infrastructure of the entire business.

Tech-savvy workers can be especially problematic because they might know how to turn off antivirus or monitoring tools without being detected.

Sharing of Login Credentials or Passwords

Sharing login credentials or passwords compromises the security of sensitive data and makes it hard to know who accessed what. This increases the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches. Companies should have strict rules against password sharing and use multi-factor authentication to maintain security.

Some malicious actors might share their access details with others to help steal data or use shared personal accounts to avoid being caught personally. This behavior breaks security rules and makes tracking who’s doing what hard.

Investigating and Confirming Data Theft

When data theft is suspected, conducting a thorough and careful investigation is critical to confirm the breach and identify the perpetrator. This involves a combination of detailed evidence gathering and collaboration with proper personnel.

Here are the essential steps and considerations for investigating and confirming data theft:

Importance of Thorough and Discrete Investigations

When investigating suspected data theft, it’s crucial to be thorough and discrete. Jumping to conclusions or handling the investigation poorly can cause legal problems and hurt employee morale.

Taking a careful and confidential approach helps gather all the evidence without tipping off the potential culprit, making finding out who’s responsible easier. It also prevents them from destroying more evidence or stealing more data. It also keeps the workplace trust intact, avoiding unnecessary fear or resentment among employees.

Steps for Gathering Evidence

Gathering evidence in a data theft investigation involves several critical steps.

  • Review access logs and audit trails. This helps pinpoint who accessed sensitive data and when. 
  • Conduct a forensic analysis of employee devices and network activity to uncover any attempts to transfer or conceal data.
    • This analysis should include checking for unusual file transfers, use of unauthorized storage devices, and disabled security tools. You can also use forensic software to recover deleted files and track data transfers.
  • Connect these technical signs with behavioral red flags, like changes in work habits or signs of frustration, to get a clear picture.
    • You can also talk to potential witnesses quietly to get more information without tipping off the suspect. 
  • Document everything carefully to create a detailed report that can be used for internal review or, if needed, legal action.

Involving Legal Counsel and HR in the Investigation Process

You should be prepared to get legal counsel and HR involved in the investigation process if it comes down to it. This is primarily to ensure that evidence is handled properly and everything follows company policies and employment laws.

Legal counsel can guide you on keeping the investigation solid, ensuring evidence is collected and documented in a way that will hold up in court if needed. Human resource professionals help manage employee relations, ensuring the investigation respects employees’ rights and maintains workplace morale.

How to Prevent Employee Data Theft

Preventing employee data theft requires a multifaceted approach addressing human and technical vulnerabilities. Here are some of the most effective strategies to prevent employee data theft that you can use in your own company:

Implement Strong Access Controls and Data Security Policies

To prevent employee data theft, one of the first things you’ll have to do is ensure you have strong access controls and data security policies. 

Start by limiting employee access to sensitive data based on what they need for their job (the principle of least privilege). This way, they only access the info they need. Use role-based access control (RBAC) to make this easier, giving permissions based on job roles.

Next, set clear acceptable use policies for company devices and networks so employees know how to handle data properly. Remember to regularly review and update access device policies and controls as employees’ roles change to keep things secure.

Utilize Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Tools and Employee Monitoring Software

You should use DLP software to detect and prevent unauthorized data exfiltration attempts and make sure sensitive information stays within the company. Monitoring what employees do on company networks and mobile devices can spot suspicious behavior that might mean data theft. 

Furthermore, DLP tools can block or alert admins to suspicious employee activities automatically, like trying to email confidential documents or upload them to external sites.

Many companies also use user behavior analytics (UBA) tools to better identify unusual activity. By combining these technologies, companies can stay ahead of potential threats and protect their sensitive data from insider threats.

Provide Regular Security Awareness Training

You should teach employees about the consequences of data theft and their role in protecting sensitive information. This helps them see how serious data breaches are and what they need to do to keep data safe. Train them to spot and report suspicious employee activities, like phishing attempts, intellectual property theft, or unauthorized access requests.

Making sure they can recognize these threats is key to catching them early. Also, give periodic security reminders and updates to reinforce best practices. Regular employee training and reminders keep everyone aware and focused on security.

Implement Strong Off-boarding Procedures for Departing Employees

As soon as someone resigns or is terminated, you should immediately revoke their access to all company systems and data to ensure they can’t access sensitive company info. During exit interviews, remind them of their confidentiality obligations and the importance of protecting company data even after they leave.

Also, keep an eye on their post-employment activity for any signs of data misuse or competitive threats. This type of employee offboarding process helps spot potential risks and takes action to protect the company’s information. These steps can significantly reduce the chances of data theft by former employees.

Foster a Culture of Security and Accountability

Creating a culture of security and accountability means prioritizing data security for everyone in the company. You should encourage employees to take responsibility for data security and report any potential issues so everyone feels like they’re part of keeping information safe.

Management should also lead by example, showing they’re committed to security best practices and ensuring that protecting data is a top priority. Set clear consequences for breaking security policies and enforce them consistently so everyone knows how serious data security is.


Employee data theft poses a significant threat to any organization, but you should be able to prevent it with the right approach and strategies.

Once you understand the behaviors and patterns that signal potential threats, your company can implement measures to mitigate risks before they escalate. From strengthening access controls to improving monitoring practices, the key is to stay alert and responsive.

Are you ready to take the necessary steps to protect your data and secure your business from internal employee threats?

Request a Teramind Demo

Get a personalized demo of Teramind to learn how we help improve insider threat detection, employee monitoring, data loss prevention, and more to protect your organization.

Table of Contents
Stay up to date
with Teramind Blog.

No spam – ever. Cancel anytime.