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Color of Money: Equifax data breach could have a silver lining

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Whatever your political affiliation, there is now one financial issue on which we can all agree.

We need Congress to pass legislation allowing consumers to temporarily freeze and unfreeze their own credit files at no charge to help thwart identity theft.

In case you missed it, the credit-reporting agency Equifax recently discovered that criminals had gained access to people's names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers.

In all, the hack could potentially impact 143 million U.S. consumers.

Stop. Just take that in.

More than 40 percent of all Americans are facing the possibility of identity theft. Their financial lives could turn into a nightmare.

With the information stolen from Equifax, identity thieves can theoretically access your bank account, file a tax return, open utility or mobile phone accounts, buy a car or even get medical treatment using your health insurance. They can also apply for a credit card. The hackers have pretty much all they need to steal your good name and live it up.

If you've been following the Equifax fiasco, you've probably heard by now that you should protect yourself by freezing your credit files.

A credit freeze is much more powerful than putting a fraud alert on your credit report. It's the difference between a criminal getting into Fort Knox and breaking into a small metal lockbox.

With a fraud alert, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit. But alerts are often overlooked.

A freeze blocks access to your credit report and credit score. The credit bureau can't release any information in your file without your permission. (Although companies you currently do business with will still have access to your files.)

When you're ready to get a loan or need someone like a prospective employer to view your file, you can temporarily unlock it, give the company access, and then lock down your files again.

However, in most states, unless you've been a victim of identity theft, a credit freeze will cost you. What you pay varies by state, but the typical fee is $10.

"What truly galls me about the hack is that Equifax and the other credit agencies stand to make money from this egregious security failure," one reader wrote. "This situation really calls for stringent regulations."

Ding, ding!

There isn't a federal credit freeze law. There needs to be one now.

Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon has just introduced the Free Credit Freeze Act in the wake of the Equifax breach.

"Credit bureaus like Equifax make millions of dollars packaging and selling our personal information," Wyden said. "Americans shouldn't have to pay extra just to protect themselves from fraud."

When it comes to the credit bureaus, "we are the commodity, said National Consumer Law Center attorney Chi Chi Wu. "We can't walk with our feet. The freeze gives a measure of control."

It was consumer pressure that finally resulted in a law giving consumers free access at annualcreditreport.com to their own credit reports every 12 months.

Equifax is waiving its freeze fee until Nov. 21.

That's not good enough.

"We've been telling anyone who'll listen to us that they should get a credit freeze," Wu said. "Problem is that consumers need to pay for these freezes, at least at Experian and TransUnion. That seems unjust given that they are the victims in this. Senator Wyden's bill addresses that injustice."

Let's all get behind this bill. This can't be a partisan issue. Too much of your financial information is at risk.

"Republicans got their social security numbers hacked too," Wu said.

Call your senator and House member to demand free freezes. If you aren't sure who represents you, go to whoismyrepresentative.com.

A Maryland reader named Diane said she's had trouble setting up a freeze on her reports since the Equifax breach. It's not an easy process. You have to separately contact each of the three major credit bureaus and navigate their unique systems. Married? This could mean paying six fees, because each spouse has his or her own credit file.

Diane and other readers complain they can't get through to the bureaus to get a freeze. No doubt, a lot of people are scared and have overwhelmed the systems. Diane is 66 and says she's mostly living on Social Security.

"If someone quickly accessed my account and got my Social Security payment or my income for a week, I would not have the money to pay my bills, including my rent," she said.

The Equifax breach was so large and so compromising that we should demand that our congressional representatives help us protect ourselves by making it free and easier to lock down our credit files.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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