Girl Smarts You should actually be pretty worried about the Equifax data breach

Since Equifax gets information from other places (like credit card companies and banks), you could be an Equifax customer and not realize it.

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Data breaches aren’t uncommon, so you probably don’t pay a ton of attention when you hear about a new one. But it’s really important that you know about the latest cybersecurity breach to hit headlines, since it’s highly likely it could impact you and your finances.

Equifax, one of the three main consumer credit reporting agencies in the U.S., announced on Thursday that up to 143 million Americans (i.e. half the country) have had their personal information compromised thanks to a data breach. According to an Equifax press release, people’s names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and the numbers of some driver's licenses were hacked. According to Equifax, the hack happened between mid-May and July, and the company discovered the breach on July 29. Experts are calling this one of the worst data breaches ever.

So, how exactly did Equifax have all this intel anyways? As a credit reporting bureau, Equifax tracks and rates the financial history of Americans and keeps data about loans you get, your loan payments, credit card payments, credit limits, addresses, and your employment history, among other things, which play a role in your credit score. That’s a lot of important info that can be used against you. Since Equifax gets information from other places (like credit card companies and banks), you could be an Equifax customer and not realize it. Considering that 143 million people are affected, there's a pretty good chance your name is on the list.

Naturally, you might read this and freak out—and you kind of should.

“People should be very concerned about the possibility of having their identity stolen,” says financial advisor Donna Skeels Cygan, certified financial planner, owner of Sage Future Financial and author of The Joy of Financial Security.

Not only can someone use your credit card fraudulently and access your investments when they have all of this information, they can take your name and social security number and open new credit cards or try to buy a car, says Thomas Holt, Ph.D., professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. And, when they default on the payments, your credit score—which is used when you want to buy a new phone, get a mortgage, buy a new car, etc.—will sink. “Everything that you’ve worked hard to build up in terms of being financially secure and responsible is at risk,” Cygan says.

Equifax has created a website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, to help people figure out whether their data may have been compromised. Once you go to the site, you enter you last name and the last six digits of your social security number, and then are told whether your information may have been stolen.

Equifax also offering up free services of TrustedID Premiere, a credit monitoring service, for a year, which Cygan says can help prevent someone from using your information. However, if you want to extend it beyond a year, you have to pay for it (plus, signing up for it makes you potentially ineligible to benefit from any future class-action lawsuit, per CNBC). She recommends looking into a paid service like LifeLock, which can help monitor your credit for years after a breach has happened.

If you’ve been a victim of the Equifax hack, Cygan says it’s important to carefully look over your banking, credit card, and investment statements for the foreseeable future to make sure there aren’t any fraudulent charges. (If you find them, alert your bank ASAP.) It's also a good idea to keep tabs on your credit score as often as you can, Holt says. "Regularly monitoring your credit score gives you a chance to reduce economic harm to your personal identity," he says—pull yours for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also advises considering a credit freeze—making it harder for people to open accounts using your information.

"Data breaches happen so often, but the main thing people should keep in mind is that you can't have breach fatigue," says Holt. "Your information may get used and it may not—but you need to be aware and watch what's happening."

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