Rick BissonAn estimated 143 million, or half of all Americans, have been affected by a cyber security breach at Equifax, one of the nation’s three major credit-reporting agencies. The hackers stole personal data, including Social Security numbers, names, addresses and dates of birth.

Equifax had previously offered victims a free year of credit report monitoring — but customers and advocates were quick to point out that this wouldn’t actually stop anyone’s identity from getting taken advantage of. Hackers would still be able to open up new credit cards, go on spending sprees and apply for mortgages.

“If there is a breach and you’re concerned about identity theft, credit monitoring is not the most effective measure,” Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, told NBC News. “A credit freeze is.”

Additionally, a credit freeze is only effective if applied to all three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. A fee is involved in both freezing and lifting freezes on accounts. Varying from state-to-state, fees range from about $5 to $10. However, on Sept. 11, Equifax announced that it has waived all security freeze fees for the next 30 days.

Once frozen, accounts can only be seen by the individual, their existing creditors and debt collectors acting on their behalf, and government agencies who may access it via subpoena or search warrant.

While freezing and un-freezing your credit is a great way to stop thieves or computer errors, it’s also somewhat of a hassle. The accounts cannot be frozen and un-frozen at the snap of a finger. Although the Federal Trade Commission says that it takes no more than three business days, it has been known to take longer.

Financing a house (or a car) with a frozen account can cause a number of headaches, including derailing transactions and tampering with timelines. A freeze on the credit report may complicate a pending contract in many ways; from inhibiting the acquisition of a pre-approval letter or made application letter, to preventing a credit report from pulled by the lender within 10 days of closing, as is a federal requirement.

Additionally, freezing and un-freezing an account isn’t something a lender can do; borrowers will need to do all the heavy lifting.

“You never know for sure 100 percent, but you should assume your data has been compromised either in this breach or in previous breaches,” said Avivah Litan, a security analyst at financial research firm Gartner. “Well over half the population has been breached even before this. There’s a greater than 50 percent chance that you have been compromised. That’s what you should assume, no matter who tells you what.”

Unfortunately, the credit rating bureau won’t notify those 143 million people whose information was stolen.

To check whether or not your information has been hacked, visit Equifax’s website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, and click on the tab that says “Potential Impact.” You’ll be asked to enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. You’ll either get a message that says “we believe that your personal information was not impacted by this incident” or “we believe that your personal information may have been impacted by this incident.”

Whether you are in the process of purchasing a home (or a car) or not, be sure to check Equifax’s website. If you find out that you have been one of the 143 million hacked, go to IdentityTheft.gov to file an identity theft report right away.

The website will also provide you with a recovery plan after you submit the information. The plan will vary depending on what kind of accounts were created or hacked. If you have not been hacked and are in the process of financing, you might consider holding off on a freeze and subscribing to a credit monitoring service and, as always, keep a close eye on your credit.

This column is produced by Rick Bisson and his family, who own Bisson Real Estate with Keller Williams Realty of Midcoast and Sugarloaf.