The Equifax hack may have exposed 143 million people's Social Security numbers -- but here's why you shouldn't freak out

Data breaches suck.

And on Thursday, we had another one.

Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies in the US, announced that it was hacked between mid-May and July, potentially exposing Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and other personal information for up to 143 million Americans.

A breach of this size is a massive challenge for any company, and Equifax certainly hasn’t handled it well so far. People are pissed, and they have a right to be. On top of everything, the company’s chief financial officer and two other senior executives cashed in on almost $US2 million of Equifax stock once they learned about the hack, reported Business Insider’s Mohammed Hadi and Bryan Logan.

In a perfect world, none of this would happen. But, as our lives and financial lives become increasingly digital, these hacks are an unfortunate and unavoidable downside.

There are upsides, however, to moving our money online. As a financial planner in New York City, being able to access client accounts during meetings is incredibly helpful. Mobile check deposits are a game changer, at least until checks are no longer a thing. We can buy clothes and groceries and anything we want without ever standing in line at the cash register.

It’s convenient and easy, except when it isn’t. Like now.

Here’s the thing though. Like the data breach at Target, and Home Depot, and many others you probably never knew about, this too will pass. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen some really bad financial situations. I know how stressful it can be, but I also know how possible it is to fix things — one step at a time. If something goes wrong with your money, it can be resolved much more easily than rebuilding after a hurricane, for example.

Even when we take all kinds of steps to protect ourselves online, our best laid plans can still result in financial foibles — whether as a result of our own error or a giant financial company’s. I’ve had my credit card number stolen not once, but twice. Once at a bar and another time at a gas station. It was frustrating, but it didn’t ruin my life.

The only thing we can do is try to protect our data as best we can, and respond quickly if something does happen. You’ll be ok, I promise.

But, if you’re still freaking out, here are some steps you can take to protect your data online.

1. Find out if you’ve even been compromised.

You can find out at Equifax’s website. Here’s how to do it.

2. Use secure passwords on all of your accounts, including your online shopping accounts.

This is like eating your vegetables: You know you should do it, but it’s not fun and you’d rather not. I get it. But any data security expert will tell you secure passwords are a necessity. Every site you use should have a different password, and it shouldn’t be easy to guess.

Keeping track of a random string of 15 letters and numbers is basically impossible, so I use LastPass to generate and save all my online passwords. Hopefully they don’t get hacked, but at least it’s better than storing all my login info on the notepad app on my iPhone.

3. Understand how to freeze your credit, but don’t do it quite yet.

If securing your passwords seems like too big a lift, then freezing your credit to protect against the chance of identity theft will definitely give you a headache.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea and something that should be easy to do, but think about the last time your flight was canceled due to bad weather and everyone was trying to get rebooked at the same time. It’s an administrative nightmare, and stressing out about it doesn’t do you much good.

The process requires dealing with customer service agents at all three credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — and keeping track of a unique pin number that you’re going to need anytime you want to open a new account or move to a new apartment. Make sure you fully understand how it works (the Federal Trade Commission has a nice break-down) before you start freezing your credit.

One caveat: If your identity has actually been compromised — as in, someone tried to open a fraudulent account in your name — then this is an important step to take. But doing it proactively probably isn’t worth the trouble, if you ask me.

4. Monitor your money regularly — even if you haven’t been compromised.

I use to quickly check all of my financial accounts every morning, just like I check email and Instagram. This came in handy both times my credit card was stolen. I was able to identify the pending charges before they even cleared my account, and American Express overnighted me a new card immediately. It was a little annoying, but not that big of a deal.

If you have been compromised, this becomes even more essential. Equifax is offering free credit monitoring, but opting in to the service opts you out of future class action suits, so it’s probably better not to do it. You can monitor your credit for free using a service like CreditKarma.

Don’t worry too much if you’ve already agree ed to Equifax’s credit monitoring. Who knows how this will all unfold, and it can’t hurt to have free credit monitoring in the mean time.

5. Optimise your money management and credit usage.

A breach like this is a good reminder to check your credit score, pull your credit report, and review the way you’re currently managing your money. There may be things you can do to improve your credit score, fix any errors on your credit report, and optimise your current collection of credit cards.

Considering data breaches are more or less our new normal, the only thing we can really do is the one thing we should be doing anyway: Stay on top of your money, and fix any issues as soon as you can. No one is going to be more interested in your financial situation than you are. Not even a hacker.

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