In case you missed the news earlier this year, Equifax, one of the country's three major credit bureaus, experienced a major data breach that left over 143 million consumers exposed. The result? Countless Americans are now at an increased risk of identity theft, which could impact everything from their credit card accounts to their Social Security benefits. If you're worrying about your financial data getting into the wrong hands, here are a few steps you can take to safeguard it.

1. Use strong passwords on banking and financial sites

The problem with complicated passwords is that they're harder to remember. The plus side? They're harder for criminals to uncover. Though it might require you to dedicate a bit more brain space going forward, if you want to lower your chances of a breach, create strong passwords for accessing your banking, financial, or credit card information. This typically means using a series of lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols.

Person in hooded sweatshirt at a computer


2. Shred all financial documents

Those annoying bank statements you get in the mail? Be careful about throwing them out. All it takes is for the wrong person to get hold of your trash, and voila -- you risk having your identity stolen, or an account accessed by the wrong person.

A smarter bet? Make a point of destroying documents with sensitive information before you throw them away. A $40 shredder and 10 minutes of your time each week should be enough to do the trick. Better yet, sign up for paperless statements so that you're not bombarded with physical mail that you'll then need to spend time shredding.

3. Only access financial information from your personal computer or devices

You're killing time at the library and decide to log on and check your bank statement before you leave. And boom -- you've just exposed a bunch of sensitive information to the general public.

Because public Wi-Fi networks are often unencrypted, the traffic that goes through is more visible than on a private network -- which means you never know who might see what you're doing. Furthermore, when you use a public machine to access the internet, there's no way of knowing how secure that machine is.

Finally, there's always the chance that you might make a mistake and accidentally forget to log out of a banking or credit card website, thus leaving your information up on a screen for the next user to see. Rather than take the risk, bank at home on your personal network and computer or mobile device. It's a much safer bet.

4. Watch what you keep in your wallet

If you have a tendency to load up your wallet, you may want to rethink that habit. It's never a good idea to walk around with your Social Security card, because all you're doing is increasing your chances of identity theft in the event that wallet goes missing or gets stolen. The same holds true for credit or debit cards you rarely use. These items should be locked away in a safe, and accessed only on an as-needed basis.

5. Never respond to unsolicited phone calls or emails

That friendly voice on the other end of the line asking you to verify your credit card number for rewards purposes? If she called you versus the other way around, chances are that it's a scam.

Under no circumstances should you ever give out your personal information over the phone or via email when that communication wasn't initiated by you. If you're not sure whether an email or phone call from a financial institution is legitimate or not, hang up -- or in the case of an email, don't reply -- and contact that bank or company using only the number on your credit or debit card. And if it turns out you were being scammed, report it immediately.

6. Enable multi-factor authentication

Most people access their banks or credit card companies online by entering a username and password. But nowadays, these institutions are taking steps to increase security by offering multi-factor authentication.

Multi-factor authentication is a security process that helps control who can access your accounts. Rather than just requiring a username and password, this type of system requires that you have an additional means of confirming your identity, such as having a PIN sent to your mobile phone that you'll then need to enter to get into your account. This means that to access your data, a thief would need to not just obtain your information, but somehow get their hands on your cell.

While some institutions require that you utilize multi-factor authentication, others give you the choice to opt out. Don't. Though it does require that extra step, enabling multi-factor authentication is a good way to keep your sensitive data under lock and key.

When it comes to protecting your personal information, there's no such thing as being too careful. Take a few extra precautions going forward, and with any luck, you'll lower your chances of falling victim to identity theft, or a similarly unwanted fate.