The Equifax breach may have exposed 143 million people's Social Security numbers - here's what to do if your identity is at risk

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First, try not to panic.

A massive data breach at credit bureau Equifax compromised 143 million people's personal information on Thursday.

As Business Insider's Lydia Ramsey reported : "The details potentially accessed by hackers from mid-May to July include names, Social Security numbers , some credit card numbers, and personal documents."

Equifax set up a website, equifaxsecurity2017.com , to help figure out whether your information was part of the hack - but even that has its flaws .

If your information was compromised and your identity is at risk ... what next?

First of all, don't freak out .

Then, consider your two primary options: Setting up a fraud alert or a credit freeze.

Credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax, says the easiest option for most people is to set up a fraud alert , for free, by calling one of the three credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, or Experian. By law, the bureau you contact must share that alert with the other two bureaus, so if you'd rather not deal with Equifax so soon after the hack, you don't have to.

"The practical effect of setting up a fraud alert," Ulzheimer told Business Insider, "is that any lender that pulls reports has to call you and verbally verify that it's you that made the application."

And, he continued, if you're especially freaked out and want to be more proactive, you can add a security freeze to your credit. "The benefit to that is you're taking your credit report out of circulation," he said. "No lender with whom you do not already have a relationship will be able to get access to your report."

Here are the most important things to know about freezing your credit:
  • It does not impact your credit score
  • You have to pay to freeze it (typically $5-$10), and to lift the freeze (cost varies by state; in Georgia, where Ulzheimer lives, it would cost $9 to freeze all three reports, or "the price of an expensive beer at a restaurant")
  • You must lift it temporarily when you apply for new credit - if, say, you're applying for a mortgage and the company needs access your report
  • You have to individually call each of the three credit bureaus to do it - they do not have to share a freeze like they would a fraud alert

What you cannot do is demand that Equifax no longer generate your credit report, like you would be able to stop shopping at a store that had experienced a similar data breach. All three bureaus will continue compiling your credit reports, no matter what you do.

For more information on these steps, the FTC has a full FAQ section on its site about credit freezing, and a separate one about instituting a fraud alert .

"It's not that hard for a fraudster to get ahold of your info," said Ulzheimer. "You know the guy in your neighborhood who has the sign on his lawn that his house is protected by a security company, or that guy with the sticker on his truck that says 'insured by Smith and Wesson?'" By taking these steps, he said, "you're just making yourself a little less attractive than the guy who lives next to you. But if someone wants to get your information, it's not that hard to get it."

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