Nearly two-thirds of American adults' sensitive information could be compromised by a massive hack of credit report company Equifax -- many without even knowing it.
Hackers have obtained data that includes an estimated 143 million Americans' credit card information, Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers, among other information, reports MarketWatch.
Although the company first caught the data breach on July 9 and promptly hired a cybersecurity firm to help stop it, it publicly announced the situation on Sept. 7.
Hackers spotted a vulnerability in the website and had access to the data for approximately a month, notes The Hill.
"This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do," Equifax Chairman and CEO Richard F. Smith said of what is one of the most devastating cyber security breaches in history, according to CNN Money.
Because Equifax gets most of its information from public records, lenders, banks, retailers and credit card companies, many people who have had their information stolen may have never directly interacted with the company and could be completely unaware that they are at risk.
"This is reason Number 10,000 to check your online bank statements and credit card statements on a regular basis, ideally weekly," explained Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "Bad guys can be very patient, so it's important to keep an eye out long after this story fades from the headlines."
Equifax is reportedly mailing out notices to those impacted, and the company has set up a website where worried customers can check if their data is vulnerable, though experts cautioned The Washington Post that signing up for the service could significantly limit the legal rights of those who agree to the terms and conditions.
A portion of the fine print includes agreeing to "a waiver of the ability to bring or participate in a class action, class arbitration, or other representative action," meaning disgruntled customers legally may only be able to pursue individual lawsuits.
"In practice, companies use these [so-called arbitration clauses] to bar groups of consumers from joining together to seek justice by vindicating their legal right," Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau told reporters in July.
In a statement, the CFPB called the clause "troubling" and suggested "Equifax could remove this clause so that consumers can receive this service without condition."
Those affected by the breach might want to put fraud alerts on their credit information and potentially also freeze their credit over the long term, which will take their credit reports out of circulation so lenders cannot access their reports, credit expert and former Equifax employee John Ulzheimer told CNN Money.
"[Freezing credit is] a pretty extreme measure, but when 143 million people have been exposed like this, I think you have to take it," Ulzheimer explained.