If you’re one of the roughly 147 million people whose sensitive personal information was exposed in the 2017 Equifax data breach, get ready to claim your share of the relief. The credit bureau has agreed to a settlement of up to $700 million with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and 50 U.S. states and territories. At least $300 million of the settlement will be dedicated to a fund for compensating and providing credit-monitoring services to consumers, and Equifax will pony up as much as $125 million more if the fund falls short. The rest of the money will go toward fines from the CFPB and the states. Here’s what you need to know.
What relief may I get? For starters, you can get up to 10 years of free monitoring of your credit report or, if you already have credit monitoring that will continue at least six months, a cash payment. At least four years of the monitoring service will cover your reports from all three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—and it includes up to $1 million in identity-theft insurance. Following that, you’ll get up to six years of free monitoring of your Equifax credit report. If you were a minor (younger than 18) on May 13, 2017, you get a total 18 years of free credit monitoring.
When the settlement terms were first announced, consumers were told that they could receive a $125 check or debit card instead of credit monitoring. But the cash payments will be drawn from a $31 million pool to be divided among all the claimants—and so many people have already chosen cash that the FTC now says claimants will get “nowhere near the $125 they could have gotten if there hadn’t been such an enormous number of claims filed” and that “you will be disappointed with the amount you receive.” If you’ve already put in a claim for cash, the administrator will e-mail you and allow you to switch to the credit-monitoring option instead.
You can also claim up to $20,000 in cash reimbursement for expenses you incurred related to the breach, such as fees to freeze or unfreeze your credit reports or for credit-monitoring services, losses from unauthorized charges to your financial accounts, and fees you paid to professionals such as attorneys or accountants or for postage, notarization, mileage and other similar charges. You may even receive up to $25 per hour spent (up to 20 hours) dealing with any effects of the breach. (Claims for time spent will also be limited to a total $31 million.) And if you used Equifax’s credit or identity monitoring services between September 7, 2016, and September 7, 2017, you can get reimbursement of up to 25% of the fees you paid.
For seven years, you’ll be eligible for free identity-restoration services if you become a victim of identity theft. And starting in January 2020, for seven years all U.S. consumers will be entitled to six free credit reports from Equifax every 12 months, in addition to the free yearly report you can get from each bureau at www.annualcreditreport.com.
How do I find out whether I qualify? Enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number into this tool to see whether you’re eligible to file a claim.
How do I make a claim? You can claim benefits and upload any supporting documents online at www.equifaxbreachsettlement.com. If you’d rather mail your claim, download and fill out this form. Send it along with any supporting documents to this address:
Equifax Data Breach Settlement Administrator
c/o JND Legal Administration
P.O. Box 91318
Seattle, WA 98111-9418
If the claim is for someone who was a minor on May 13, 2017, you must use this form and send it via snail mail.
You have to file your claim by January 22, 2020 for most benefits (for claims involving out-of-pocket losses or time you spend dealing with the breach in the future, the deadline is January 22, 2024). But you won’t receive benefits until the settlement administrator has permission from the court to do so—and that won’t be before January 23, 2020. You can sign up for e-mail alerts from the FTC regarding the settlement, or call 833-759-2982 for updates.
What documentation do I need to provide? Out-of-pocket losses have to be “fairly traceable to the breach” to receive reimbursement. It’s not clear how consumers may link any fraudulent activity that they experienced to the breach. “Pointing to a particular compromise and saying that it is the one that caused an issue is extremely difficult,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.
But you may be able to make a solid case to get compensation for actions you took to protect your identity in the wake of the breach, such as freezing and thawing your credit reports, signing up for credit-monitoring services, or calling the credit agencies or other services for assistance. Dig up any documents that may serve as backup, such as credit-card and bank statements or receipts showing fees you paid and phone records indicating calls that you made.
If you’re claiming reimbursement for 10 hours or less of time that you spent avoiding or recovering from identity theft, you may provide only a description; backup documentation is not required. If you claim more than 10 hours, however, you must include supporting documents.
Why is the Equifax data breach a big deal? The breach exposed key pieces of personal data, such as names, Social Security numbers and birth dates, involving nearly half the U.S. population. Criminals can use such information years down the road to pose as someone else, from opening credit or utility accounts to renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
Will a credit-monitoring service protect me from identity theft? It won’t prevent identity theft, but it may help you spot fraud more quickly. If a crook opens a credit line in your name and it shows up on your credit report, for example, you should receive a notification of the change. Three-bureau monitoring is the best option because it covers your credit reports from all the major bureaus. Typically, you’ll pay about $20 a month for three-bureau monitoring, says credit expert John Ulzheimer—so the free option via the Equifax settlement is worth picking up.
The strongest measure you can take to prevent fraudsters from opening credit accounts in your name is to freeze your credit reports. When a freeze is in place, a lender can’t view it to judge your creditworthiness in response to a request for a new credit line or loan. Federal law now requires the bureaus to both place and lift freezes free of charge.
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