BUFFALO, NY - Equifax, one of the nation’s largest credit reporting firms, says the personal information of up to 143 million Americans may have been exposed after a massive data breach.
That’s a number large enough to represent half of the adult population of the U.S.
It’s left many on edge about the possibility information, including their address, social security number, even driver's license number, may now be in the hands of hackers and thieves.
Equifax has set up a website, where you can check if you may be one of those affected.
Those who might be, are also being offered a free year's worth of credit monitoring services.
“We are encouraging everyone to take that, just as a precaution in case something happens,” said Melanie McGovern of the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York.
In the meantime, McGovern urges consumers to be vigilant in monitoring their finances.
"We should be checking our credit report, our credit card statements, and our bank statements to see if there's any fraudulent activity," she said.
It is also advised that people be cautious with e-mail, because breaches like these can open the door to a whole wave of scammers.
Consumers are advised to particularly pay attention if they receive e-mails that claim to be updates from Equifax or connected to the breach, especially if they ask recipients to provide personal information, open attachments, or download links
“That’s definitely a red flag,” McGovern said.
Worried consumers can also put a freeze on their credit reports if they so choose.
If you're that worried, you should put a freeze on your credit reports
“That won't affect your current bank accounts or your credit cards, you can still use those, but you can't open any new accounts," said McGovern.
However, neither can anyone else –at least not in your name, unless and until you unfreeze it.
"People are becoming a little complacent because these data breaches happen so often…but Identity theft is so hard to recover from. So the best thing to do is take all the necessary precautionary steps every time it happens,” McGovern said.
There is, however, another chapter in this cautionary tale.
Even with a year's worth of protection through credit monitoring, it's possible those who now possess your information might not use it right away, and instead hold it for a period of time and try and use it later to defraud unsuspecting consumers.
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 on your Side reporter Dave McKinley and photojournalist Terry Belke.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMckinley2
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