It has been nearly two years since Equifax announced that a historically massive data breach left the personal information of over 147 million people (almost half of all Americans) vulnerable to theft. The consumer credit reporting giant agreed last month to a $700 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and 50 states and territories, $425 million of which has been set aside to compensate victims of the breach.
Here’s what you need to know to find out whether you qualify for compensation and how to claim your benefits. The following information was provided by Jacqueline Connor, an attorney with the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, in a tele-briefing organized by the FTC and Ethnic Media Services on July 30.
How do you know whether you are an affected consumer?
An affected consumer is a person whose name, address, social security number, or other personal information was exposed as a result of the breach. To check whether your information was compromised, go to ftc.gov/Equifax. Scroll down to find a link to the look-up tool next to the bolded phrase, “Not sure if your information was exposed?” You will be asked to enter your last name and the last six digits of your social security number, then click “Submit.” Connor says consumers with spaces or apostrophes in their last names may want to try different ways of typing their names to ensure they get accurate information.
What benefits can you claim as an affected consumer?
Once you determine that your information was compromised in the Equifax hack, you can click the “File a Claim” link at ftc.gov/Equifax and choose from the following compensation options:
Credit monitoring is a service by which a consumer’s credit report is regularly reviewed for major changes, and the consumer is alerted upon the detection of a change. For instance, if you were to move, your new address would replace the previous one on your credit report, and a credit monitoring service would alert you to that change.
Free credit monitoring is available to affected consumers for up to 10 years. During at least four of those years, your credit report will be monitored by all three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This three-bureau credit monitoring also includes identity theft insurance, meaning that if you discover that your identity has been stolen while you are covered by this service, you can claim up to $1 million in insurance coverage for out-of-pocket losses.
For the remaining six years, you will be provided with single-bureau credit monitoring. That is, only your Equifax credit report will be monitored.
Affected consumers who were under the age of 18 at the time of the Equifax breach (May 2017) are entitled to 18 years of free credit monitoring. These consumers would also enjoy at least four years of three-bureau credit monitoring, and they would have single-bureau credit monitoring for the remaining years.
If you already have access to credit monitoring services and don’t want more, you can request up to $125 in monetary compensation. But there’s a catch: only $31 million has been set aside for consumers who choose this option, so the higher the number of people who enroll, the lower the individual payout. Millions of people have already visited the FTC site to request it. In fact, the public demand for this option has been so overwhelming that the site advises, “You can still choose the cash option on the claim form, but you will be disappointed with the amount you receive.”
Connor strongly encourages consumers to opt for the free credit monitoring instead.
Each consumer is eligible to receive up to $20,000 as reimbursement for the following:
Keep in mind that funds for this option are also limited, and your claim may be reduced depending on enrollment volume.
Consumers can access up to seven years of free identity restoration services even if they do not file a claim. If a consumer suspects they are the victim of identity theft or fraudulent activity, they can call the settlement administrator at 1-833-759-2982. They will be assigned to an identity theft specialist who help them with tasks such as writing letters to send to their bank or to government agencies or making phone calls.
You do not have to select from only one of these three categories. For instance, you can sign up for free credit monitoring and request reimbursement for the cost of freezing your credit after the breach.
What is the deadline to file a claim?
If you want to take advantage of these benefits, you must file a claim by January 22, 2020. Connor, who was herself affected by the breach and filed a claim, assures that the process is simple and can even be done from your mobile device.
She suggests that consumers sign up for email updates on the FTC website to receive current information on the settlement, including details on when they will receive their benefits.
Who will provide the benefits?
The benefits listed above will be provided by a third-party administrator. Although the federal government was heavily involved in determining the settlement, neither the FTC nor any other government entity can access the information consumers supply on the settlement website.
What if you don’t file a claim?
Beginning in 2020, all U.S. consumers, regardless of whether their data was exposed in the breach, will be able to get six additional free credit reports from Equifax every year for seven years. This means consumers can get a total of seven free credit reports from Equifax annually, since existing law already allows them to get one free credit report from Equifax each year. This is an important benefit because it will allow consumers to check their credit reports more frequently, and thus identify any mistakes or problems earlier and take action to protect their information sooner.
If a consumer wishes to pursue individual legal action against Equifax, they must opt out of the settlement by sending a written request for exclusion to the settlement administrator, postmarked no later than November 19, 2019. If you do not opt out by this deadline, you lose your right to sue Equifax for damages caused by the breach.
One thing you can do to safeguard your information outside of credit monitoring services is to freeze your credit when you are not using it. That way, you can prevent identity thieves from opening new lines of credit based on your credit report. As of September 21, 2018, a new federal law allows people to freeze and unfreeze their credit free of charge at all three major credit bureaus.
Where can you learn more?
For additional information, visit ftc.gov/Equifax. (I suggest reading the FAQs on both the FTC website and on the settlement website.) Because scammers have created fake Equifax settlement websites to trick consumers into handing over sensitive information, it is highly recommended that you access the correct address through the link on the FTC site.