On July 22, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a $700 million Equifax settlement to compensate consumers affected by the largest-ever data breach in history.
The breach exposed the personal information of approximately 147 million people (almost about half the US population). Hackers stole 147 million names and dates of birth, 145.5 million social security numbers, 17.6 million email addresses, 99 million physical addresses, as well as 23.3 million telephone numbers, and 209 thousand payment card numbers and expiration dates.
Following an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, Equifax has been required to pay up to $575 million to settle cases with the FTC Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
On Tuesday, July 30, in a tele-briefing organized by the FTC and Ethnic Media Services, Jacqueline Connor, an attorney with the FTC Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, shared information on the real benefits of the settlement and how consumers can determine their eligibility to apply for claims.
The FTC started investigating Equifax after the 2017 breach and had many of the same questions that consumers across the country were asking.
What happened? How did this happen? What can we do?
The investigation was undertaken by two federal regulatory bodies across 40 states and revealed that Equifax had not been doing what it should have been doing to protect the personal information it has on millions of consumers The FTC says it has not identified the hackers and despite the loss of information, there is no evidence of direct harm from the breach as a result of information that was accessed.
The settlement is the largest ever for a data breach and includes cash payments, identity theft protection and credit monitoring services for consumers across the 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
How to find out if you were affected by the breach?
According to Jacqueline Connor, an affected consumer is someone whose personal information was exposed in the breach – that means an individual’s name, address, social security number and other personal data were actually part of the information that the hackers got their hands on. She said the settlement offers a number of benefits to consumers that are really easy to take advantage of.
Consumers should go to the website ftc.gov/equifax and enter their last name and the last six digits of their social security number to access a tool that will determine if they were affected.
The good news for consumers is that they do not have to prove that an instance of identity theft was related to the Equifax breach, to benefit from the settlement. They simply have to prove they are affected consumers, and any identity theft they have experienced has occurred after the Equifax breach, and involved the type of information that was accessed by the breach.
How to Claim your Free Benefits
Three categories of benefits are available.
1. Free credit monitoring
Credit monitoring is a service that monitors a consumer’s credit report for any key changes and sends an alert to the consumer when it detects a change. For example, if someone moves to a new address and triggers an address change on their credit report, the service monitoring their credit report will send them an alert about the change.
Free credit monitoring is available to consumers for ten years and at least four of those years will include three-bureau credit monitoring by all three nationwide credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and Transunion. The remainder of the ten years will be single-bureau credit monitoring, which in this case would be a consumer’s Equifax report.
If a consumer discovers they have been a victim of identity theft while being covered by this credit monitoring product, they can get up to one million dollars of identity theft insurance coverage for out-of-pocket losses.
A huge benefit that’s not making the news as much, is the eighteen years of credit monitoring for minors. If a consumer was less than 18 years old when their information was exposed by the Equifax breach, they are entitled to up to eighteen years of credit monitoring, with four years of three-bureau credit monitoring and single-bureau for the remainder.
2. Cash Compensation
Consumers who already have credit monitoring can request monetary compensation up to $125. This widely reported option is very popular, but the FTC wants to highlight that only a limited amount of money has been set aside for this option. As more people enroll, the smaller the check value will be. From the FTC perspective, the value of credit monitoring far outweighs the value of the cash payment that consumers may be able to get.
Another benefit category is reimbursement for time or other cash payments. Each consumer is eligible to receive up to $20,000 for the following:
- Time spent protecting their identity or recovering from identity theft for up to 20 hrs. @$25 an hour; (Note: there is a limit to how much money is available for this type of compensation)
- Other reimbursable expenses include money paid as a result of the breach, such as losses from unauthorized charges to a consumer’s account, the cost of freezing or unfreezing credit reports at other credit reporting agencies after the breach, the cost of any credit monitoring purchased after the breach to protect personal information, fees paid to professionals such as accountants or attorneys, and other expenses including notary fees, document shipping fees, postage, mileage and phone charges resulting from having to deal with an identity theft event.
3. Identity theft restoration services
Consumers can get free identity theft restoration services for seven years. What this means is that if a consumer experiences any fraud or think that they have, they can call this service to get help. An identity theft specialist will help with the process – whether it’s drafting letters to a bank or other government agencies or making phone calls. Consumers will not have to file a claim to get this benefit.
When Will You Get Your Benefits?
From January 2020 through December 2026, all US consumers, regardless of whether or not their data was part of the breach, will be able to get a total of seven free credit reports from Equifax for a total of seven years. Under existing law, consumers were able to get one free credit report a year from Equifax but now can get six more for free.
Why is this important? Consumers can check credit reports more frequently to ensure there are no mistakes or problems with it. For example, if someone steals an identity to open a new credit card account– that would be on the consumer’s credit report. By looking at a credit report more often, consumers can catch any misuse of their identity and act immediately to stop it.
The FTC recommends thatpeople go to ftc.gov/equifax because it has a direct link to the legitimate settlement website. Consumers can sign up to receive email update alerts as new information is uploaded.
Although the Federal Government has played a key role in the settlement, the actual benefits are being provided by a third-party administrator. Neither the FTC nor any government entity has access to the information provided by the consumer on the settlement website.
Third-party administrators have started accepting claims from the week of July 22 so consumers can apply for benefits right now. The claims period ends on January 22, 2020. Consumers who want free credit monitoring must apply by this date and should expect to get money back after that.
Consumers can opt out of the settlement if they want to pursue other forms of legal action. The FTC suggests that one other option for consumers is to freeze their credit when they are not using it, to protect themselves from identity thieves who use the credit report to open new lines of credit; under federal law as of last fall, freezing credit is free in every state.
Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents and is interested in creating stories and podcasts on issues that impact the South Asian community. Before joining India Currents she was Head of Content at an online digital platform.