In a September 7 statement, Atlanta-based credit reporting agency Equifax announced its system was hacked, compromising the information of approximately 143 million U.S. consumers, or almost half the country's population. Individuals in Canada and the United Kingdom were also affected.
Social security numbers, names, addresses, birth dates and driver's license numbers were all accessed in the hack. Credit card information for over 200,000 people was obtained and over 180,000 had documents with personal identifying information exposed.
A vulnerability within an application on a U.S. website was exploited by the hackers and granted them access to the sensitive information, which occurred between May and July. Equifax discovered the security breach on July 29.
Potential fraud risks abound after information hack
"Having access to such important information all at once leaves consumers vulnerable"
The personal data Equifax receives comes from banks, credit companies, lenders and retailers, which it then uses to build credit reports for its customers, according to CNN.
"This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do," said Richard F. Smith, Equifax CEO, in the company's official statement. "I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes."
Equifax created a website that lets consumers see if their information was compromised and also provides tips on how to further protect their data and identity.
The company will also mail notices to anyone that had their credit card information or documents containing sensitive data accessed.
CNN reported that many investigations are occurring, including independent inquires by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"The CFPB is authorized to take enforcement action against institutions engaged in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, or that otherwise violate federal consumer financial laws," A CFPB spokesperson told CNN. "We are looking into the data breach and Equifax's response."
John Ulzheimer, a credit expert and former Equifax employee, told USA News the illegally accessed data is "perpetually valuable" and is not so easily changed, like what is possible with a credit card number.
Hackers having access to such important information all at once leaves consumers vulnerable to a variety of very serious fraud scams. Criminals can use the data to open new credit cards, drain bank accounts, apply for loans, commit tax and medical fraud or create an entirely new identity.
The digital nature of the current world and the reporting of other high-profile data breaches have made consumers more aware of information security risks than ever before. Secure payment systems like those offered by Cloud9 can help improve overall customer confidence.