Editor's Note: This updated article corrects an error in the original version. Equifax, not Experian, will be waiving their fees for removing and placing security freezes until Nov. 21.
Potentially over 140 million American consumers' personal information was exposed after a data breach at Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus, primarily including people's names, social security numbers, addresses and birth dates.
In some cases, drivers license numbers, credit card numbers and dispute documents with personal identifying information were stolen.
This could result in identity theft on a massive scale.
According to Equifax, on July 29 their security team observed suspicious network traffic associated with its U.S. online dispute portal web application. They began an investigation and blocked the suspicious activity. On July 30, they removed the affected application.
On Aug. 2, they contacted Mandiant, an independent cybersecurity firm, which conducted a forensic review to determine the extent of the data that was breached.
Once the company had an idea of the potentially impacted population, they addressed the public with the news on Sept. 7 — 40 days after becoming aware of the breach.
Local banks, including Citizens National Bank, are doing everything they can to help give their customers guidance on the steps they should take.
According to Chief Financial Officer at CNB Sarah Hinneberg, the Federal Trade Commission is recommending consumers visit the site www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, created by Equifax, to determine if their information has been exposed.
"I think at this point, knowing 143 million were affected, assume you were affected," Hinneberg said.
She recommends consumers sign up for a credit monitoring program whether they were affected or not. There are numerous programs available online and Equifax will be offering free credit monitoring until Nov. 21. Consumers are also entitled to a free credit report from each of the agencies annually through www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
"People just need to do their research and pick one that's right for them," she said. "Don't just pick the first one that pops up. You want something that's going to help you when you are a victim of identity theft."
Hinneberg also explained that consumers can place a freeze on their credit report to prevent anyone from accessing it.
When the customer applies for credit, they can place a temporary thaw or contact the agencies to release their report to specific lenders. This action will inhibit someone from opening a new line of credit in the customer's name. It will not stop identity thieves from accessing any existing accounts.
Consumers must place the freeze directly with each of the agencies at the following:
• Equifax, www.equifax.com or 800-349-9960
• TransUnion, www.transunion.com or 888-909-8872
• Experian, www.experian.com or 888-397-3742
For Minnesota residents, there is a $5 charge to place a freeze on a credit report. This fee would be charged by each of the agencies. Equifax will be waiving fees for removing and placing security freezes until Nov. 21.
Consumers can also sign up for fraud alerts, which can be placed through one agency and it should carry over to the other two. Fraud alerts last 90 days and can be renewed as often as the consumer wants, there is no charge.
If a consumer becomes a victim of identity theft, they will need to take action to protect themselves. If they have a credit monitoring program that offers assistance with identity theft, their first step would be to contact them. Otherwise, the Federal Trade Commission's website has a link to report identity theft at www.ftc.gov.
"There really isn't a fix for this, because this is permanent information that they have. You can't go and change your social security number," Hinneberg said. "They could sit on this information for 10 years. This is going to be the new normal for people. Identity theft was always in the back of people's minds; now it needs to be in the forefront of their minds. They're going to have to pay attention."