What you need to know in the wake of the Equifax data breach scandal

WASHINGTON — Last week, the credit reporting agency Equifax announced that “criminals” had stolen vital financial and personal data belong to more than 140 million Americans.

That certainly seems bad, but in an era when more than 1 billion email accounts can be hacked just how big of a deal is this data breach?

“I would say this is our Category 5 storm of data breaches,” said CBS News Business Analyst Jill Schlesinger. “This is a data, a consumer reporting agency, right? That means not just your name, but your Social Security number and your credit card, I mean all of it is in one place.”

Oh. Well, that is bad.

“The thing to remember is, if you think, ‘Oh, this is an event,’ this is actually going to last for a much longer time,” Schlesinger said. “One security expert said to me that your info will be alive on the dark web for a long time to come.”

As if the breach wasn’t bad enough, the website Equifax recommended people use to find out if they had been hacked has encountered a number of problems and the company has been scrambling to keep pace with events.

But there are some things consumers can do to keep their data safe.

Schlesinger says the easiest and arguably most important is simply being vigilant.

“Watch those credit card statements very carefully,” she said. “See if there is anything weird that jumps out you. You’ll see if someone has been trying to open up an account in your name.”

Schlesinger also suggests putting a credit freeze on your credit file, which would stop all access to your credit report. Doing that though could cause some problems since it would stop you from accessing your own account, meaning you wouldn’t be able to get a loan or a mortgage until you unfreeze the account and in some states there are fees for that.

Schlesinger also recommends filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission because she thinks the FTC will be working hard to stay on top of this breach.

“It’s a funny thing,” she said. “It’s a reality that we are living with, the question is really are you going to be the low hanging fruit for the fraudsters?”

While hacking and data breaches are just part of life in the 21st century, Schlesinger said being proactive about your credit reports and other personal data on the web should start to be the equivalent of locking your front door. It’s a good first step to ensure your safety.

“They [hackers] aren’t going to work that hard,” she said. “There are plenty of people who just aren’t going to do anything [to protect their information], so don’t be the low hanging fruit.”

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