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FBI says there's no evidence Chinese hackers used Equifax data, but consumers can't be complacent

A mobile phone open to the web site of credit bureau Equifax, with text on the website reading 'Equifax Cybersecurity Incident', providing steps for consumers to take following a security breach in 2017 that affected 143 million Americans.
Smith Collection/Gado | Archive Photos | Getty Images

The Justice Department announced Monday that it's indiciting four members of the Chinese military for the 2017 Equifax data hack, which exposed the personal information of 147 million Americans.

The department's painstaking investigation also found there's no evidence the data stolen has been used "at this time," FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said during a press conference Monday.

Yet Bowdich urged consumers to remain vigilant when it comes to protecting their information. "As American citizens, we cannot be complacent about protecting our sensitive, personal data," he says.

The Equifax data breach, first announced in September 2017, is one of the largest in history, with 147 million consumers affected, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Hackers were able to get access to a multitude of consumers' private information, including names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, credit card numbers and even driver's license numbers.

During the investigation into the breach, Equifax admitted the company was informed in March 2017 that hackers could exploit a vulnerability in its system, but it failed to install the necessary patches.

Last summer, Equifax agreed to pay $700 million to settle federal and state investigations into how it handled the massive data breach. As part of the settlement individual consumers were able to claim up to $20,000 for any losses or fraud caused by the breach or free credit-monitoring services. If you already had credit monitoring in place, you could submit a claim for up to $125 cash payment.

The settlement received final approval last month. If you're still unsure if your data was part of the Equifax breach, you can enter your name and the last 4 digits of your Social Security number in a search here.

The best ways to protect your information

Although none of the stolen Equifax data has been detected yet, that doesn't mean that it will never surface, cyber-security expert Joseph Steinberg tells CNBC Make It.

That's especially true since much of the information that was stolen in the Equifax breach, including Social Security numbers, does not change with time. In fact, this type of data can become more valuable over time, aging like a fine wine, Steinberg says. "If the Chinese use the data a decade from now, few people will even be thinking about the Equifax breach."

That said, Steinberg says the Chinese government is probably not stealing data in order to steal money, and identity theft is probably not its primary reason either. "The data might have tremendous value in terms of recruiting spies and other military-type purposes," he says, adding that "the FBI would not have a clue if the data were used as such."

To protect your data, Bowdich recommends Americans avoid clicking on links or opening attachments in emails, especially when you don't know the sender.

Emails are a particularly common way for fraudsters to gain access to your credit card information or identity. Hackers send what's called a phishing email. "Email is the number-one way cybercrime of all forms happens. If a bad guy can get you to click on a link in an email, he can do all manner of bad things to your online life," says Dave Baggett, co-founder and CEO of anti-phishing start-up Inky.

Americans should also use two-factor authentication, which generally requires users to not only enter a password, but also confirm their identity by logging onto your phone or entering a code texted or emailed to you.

Last, people should check their credit report on a "fairly regular" basis, Bowdich said. Unlike a simple credit score, your entire credit report provides a comprehensive look at your credit history and activity. You can get a free copy of your report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Transunion.

"They should make sure their data and their information is secure," Bowdich said.

Don't miss: If you made a claim for $125 from Equifax, you're not getting it after court awards nearly $80 million to attorneys

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