Last week, one of the three largest credit bureaus in the U.S. announced it was hacked and the personal information of 143 million Americans was stolen. The hackers also stole credit card numbers for about 209,000 people and dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 people.
The Associated Press reports that Equifax has been the focus of anger and distrust, not only for the breach but over how it initially was handled. The huge hack occurred from May through July, but the company didn’t publicly announce it until more than a month later.
ARE YOU AFFECTED?
Considering the size and scope of the breach, it’s probably better just to assume you were part of it. People trying to find out if they were affected have gotten some confusing or contradictory information, even from Department of Justice officials.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a consumer alert for the data breach and urged people to check if they have been affected by going to an Equifax website. However, the Oregon Attorney General’s Office is telling consumers not to visit Equifax but to check their credit through other agencies such as annualcreditreport.com.
WHAT SHOULD I DO?
— Closely monitor your own credit reports, which are available free once a year, and stagger them to see one every four months.
— Stay vigilant, possibly for a long time. Scammers who get ahold of the data could use it at any time — and with 143 million to choose from, they may be patient.
— Consider freezing your credit reports. This is considered the most effective way to prevent thieves from opening new credit cards or loans in your name, but it also prevents you from opening new accounts. So if you want to apply for something, you need to lift the freeze a few days beforehand. In some states there is a charge for freezing or unfreezing your credit. Fees are generally $5 or $10 per credit bureau.
Fraud alert: If you detect fraud on any account, you can contact one of the major credit reporting agencies and alerts will be automatically added by the other two agencies. A fraud alert lasts 90 days and can be renewed.
File tax returns early: As hard as it is to think of tax season in September, you should file as soon as you have the information you need — before a scammer files for you.
Learn more: Visit Federal Trade Commission website.
THE THREE MAIN CREDIT BUREAUS
There are many credit checking companies in the U.S. but the three main bureaus are all publicly traded, for-profit companies that are not owned by the government. You can contact them to freeze your credit.
Equifax — alerts.equifax.com
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian — experian.com/fraud/center.html
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013-0949
TransUnion — transunion.com/fraud
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
CAN YOU SUE?
Yes. You can sue as part of a class action or on your own. There are at least two class action suits filed now, one in Oregon and another in Georgia. A class action lawyer in Oregon is using the web address equifaxcase.com to link to his website. CNET magazine reported that despite the massive payout sought, an estimated $70 billion, if the suit is successful each victim would receive $489 for the theft of their Social Security number, name, address and birthday.
Equifax released a statement Friday evening declaring that the arbitration requirement and class action waiver will not apply to this particular breach. In its statement Monday, it said it had again adjusted the language in the FAQs on its website.
U.S. CREDIT PROFILE
A high credit score can help a consumer get more favorable terms on credit cards and home loans. Experts say that while a score of 760 is needed to secure the lowest interest rates on a mortgage, a score of 700 or higher typically qualifies you for most credit cards.
WHO’S INVESTIGATING THIS?
A host of state and federal authorities as well as politicians have stepped in to investigate. Credit bureaus like Equifax are lightly regulated compared with other parts of the financial system. Expect more scrutiny from regulators over the credit bureaus.
The chairmen of at least two U.S. House committees say they want to hold hearings.
Lastly, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the nation’s watchdog entity for financial issues, says it has the authority to investigate the data breach and fine and sanction Equifax if warranted.
Company executives are also under scrutiny, after it was found that three sold shares worth a combined $1.8 million a few days after the company discovered the breach, according to documents filed with securities regulators. Equifax said the three executives “had no knowledge that an intrusion had occurred at the time they sold their shares.”
IDENTITY THEFT AND REALITY
According to a Gallup survey in 2016, Americans worry more about identity theft than their cars being broken into.
Sources: The Associated Press, The Washington Post, CNET Magazine, FICO, Gallup, Oregon Attorney General’s Office, California Attorney General’s Office
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