WASHINGTON -- Four members of the Chinese military have been charged with breaking into the networks of the Equifax credit reporting agency and stealing the personal information of tens of millions of Americans, the Justice Department said Monday, blaming Beijing for one of the largest hacks in history.
The 2017 breach affected roughly 145 million people, with the hackers successfully stealing names, Social Security numbers and other personal information stored in the company's databases.
The four - members of the People's Liberation Army, an arm of the Chinese military - are also accused of stealing the company's trade secrets, law enforcement officials said.
The case comes as the Trump administration has warned against what it sees as the growing political and economic influence of China, and efforts by Beijing to collect data on Americans and steal scientific research and innovation.
"This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people," Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
"Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the Internet's cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us," he added.
The case is one of several the Justice Department has brought over the years against members of the PLA. The Obama administration in 2014 charged five Chinese military hackers with breaking into the networks of major American corporations to siphon trade secrets.
The criminal charges were filed in federal court in Atlanta, where the company is based.
The indictment, which details efforts the hackers took to cover their tracks, includes charges of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit economic espionage and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The FBI says there's no evidence the Chinese hackers actually used the stolen data, but they are warning consumers not let their guard down.
Experts say stolen consumer information is like fine wine: Its value increases as it ages.
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
1) Strengthen your logins and passwords and sign up for two-factor authentication.
2) Check your credit report regularly. It's free.
3) Consider freezing your credit, meaning no one will be able to open new credit in your name.
Bonus tip: Tax day is coming up. File early to beat potential hackers to the punch.