You’ve probably seen the headlines about the Equifax breach but unless you’re in the data business, the facts can be confusing to sort through. What exactly happened and do you need to worry about your personal information being compromised? Let’s break down the details and review how you can protect your personal identity.

What happened? 

Equifax, a consumer credit reporting agency that stores information of about 800 million consumers suffered a major security breach when hackers broke into their database in May. In September Equifax announced the breach, saying that the hackers were able to access the information of an estimated 145.5 million Americans. This information includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers. Additionally, the hackers obtained the credit card numbers of 209,000 US Consumers.

How can you know if you were affected?

Equifax set up a website to help you figure out if you were affected. Equifax will also send out mail notifications to consumers whose credit card numbers or legal documents were breached. However, according to Ron Lieber from the New York Times, some people are finding that Equifax’s site gives them conflicting results each time they enter their information. The company did not respond to Lieber’s questions about issues with the site. He says, “My guess is that [Equifax] is not completely certain whose information was stolen (and that its website still isn’t functioning properly). You should protect yourself accordingly.”

Should you be worried?

With over half the American population affected, you don’t want to cross your fingers and hope that you have nothing to worry about. Particularly given Equifax’s mediocre attempts to inform that affected by the breach, most security experts are recommending that Americans assume they were affected.

That’s because there are real risks associated with having this kind of personal data in the hands of ill-intentioned hackers. Specifically, identity theft is possible. Hackers could use your information to make purchases, gain tax reimbursements, and more. The effects of identity theft can follow you for years. For instance, if your identity thief runs up a huge credit card debt, it could screw up your credit score. Even once you prove that you were victim to identity theft, Lieber cautions, “the time it takes to fix problems” every time you encounter a problem over the years “is incalculable.”

If you want to hear all the possible horror stories associated with identity theft, check out Drew Armstrong’s piece, which documents the mortgage, tax and airport troubles victims encounter.

How do you protect yourself? 

Bite the bullet and freeze your credit file at all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Or if you’re (understandably) nervous about entering your info on their websites, give them a call:
Equifax: 1-800-685-1111
Experian: 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872
If you do freeze your credit by phone, be aware that the representative or automated phone system might give you a PIN number quickly and without repetition. Be ready to write down that PIN number, because you’ll need it when you want to unfreeze your credit file in the future, when you want to apply for a new credit card, or when you want to take out a mortgage loan.
You may be wondering why you need to freeze your credit at all three bureaus when only Equifax was affected. The hackers who stole your data could use it to apply for credit with a company that solely checks Experian or TransUnion databases. In that case, you want to make sure you credit is frozen at those bureaus as well.
If you’re married, be sure and have your spouse freeze his or her files as well. Even though you have joint accounts, these bureaus will still maintain separate files for each of you.

As you can see, the Equifax breach could have serious consequences for you and for your credit score. Take the time to protect yourself.