Equifax, one of the “big three” credit-reporting agencies and a broker in personal-identifying data, announced September 7 “a cybersecurity incident,” as stated in a mea culpa by its Chairman and CEO Richard Smith.
Smith explained that hackers gained access to the names, dates of birth, SSN, addresses, and in some cases, driver’s license and credit card numbers of 143 million Americans. That is nearly half the United States’ population, many of which were unaware Equifax had their information to begin with. Equifax gets this data from creditors who report credit activity on individuals, rather than from the individuals themselves.
In response, the financial institutions reporting to Equifax, and the individuals about whom it tracks and rates will be filing lawsuits across the country. Two such lawsuits sprung up within hours of Equifax’s announcement. The complaints were filed in federals courts in Portland and Atlanta on behalf of nationwide classes. Large-scale litigation such as this is par for the course in the aftermath of high-profile data breaches, which can result in settlement payments up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Just recently, Target agreed to payout over $39 million to settle litigation with banks and another $18.5 with consumers over a 2013 breach that exposed 40 million credit and debit cards and the personal information of about 60 million customers. Heartland, a credit card processing company, paid out over $110 million to credit card companies and individuals for a 2008 breach that exposed about 130 million credit and debit cards. And in June of this year, Anthem agreed to pay $115 million to settle litigation over a 2015 hacking that compromised about 79 million people’s personal information.
That arbitration provision and class action waiver received heavy criticism and sparked an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who called the provision “unacceptable and unenforceable.” Equifax subsequently updated its terms to remove the provision.
The website had other problems, however, that have not been resolved. It has been described as a marketing funnel for Equifax’s own credit protection service, the value of which is in serious question. Moreover, the website does not work.
It gives inconsistent reports to people, myself included. On September 7, the website stated that my information was not impacted. On September 8, it said it was. Others have experienced the same, or received “System Unavailable” messages. One has to question whether Equifax even knows the full extent of its breach.
As an individual, this is a reminder to protect yourself to the extent possible by creating strong passwords unique to each website, take advantage of advanced security features like two-step authentication, and consider ending relationships with businesses that do not offer advanced security options. If you believe you were affected by the Equifax breach, and there is nearly a 50/50 chance you were, consider instituting a credit freeze.
As a holder of consumer information, this is a reminder of the incredible focus that must be paid to securing your customers’ privacy. It is also a reminder to review your own customer agreements. Equifax was in a unique position because it did not have an agreement with the people whose information it carried. If you do, this is a good time to consider consulting with a lawyer as to whether you need an arbitration provision and class action waiver or, if such provisions are already in your agreements, whether they are legally current and, thus, enforceable.