Roughly two years ago, nearly half the U.S. population had their personal information compromised by hackers in Equifax’s enormous database. Consumers were outraged, lawmakers upbraided the chief executive and Equifax ultimately reached a settlement with regulators for up to $700 million.
Despite the anger, the vast majority of the 147 million consumers eligible for the settlement are sitting it out. As of Dec. 1, just more than 10% of the consumers affected had filed for some type of compensation.
Wednesday was the deadline for initial claims under the settlement, including requests for free credit monitoring services or the so-called alternative compensation — a payment of up to $125 for those who already had some form of monitoring in place. It was also the initial deadline to seek payment for time spent dealing with the inconvenience, and for claims for out-of-pocket expenses or losses incurred because of the breach.
In some ways, the initial settlement period was a success: According to a court document, the fund is expected to pay in full all legitimate claims for out-of-pocket losses.
In others, it was an exercise in frustration: Those seeking the cash option will receive far less than the $125 cap. More than 4.5 million people had filed claims for the cash payment as of Dec. 1. Only $31 million of the settlement was set aside for the cash option; that works out to less than $7 a person.
The Federal Trade Commission had warned of that possibility months ago, calling the public response to the settlement “overwhelming” and telling consumers that each person who took the cash option was likely to get a very small sum.
The free credit monitoring services, the commission said, provided a much better value. About 3.3 million people agreed, and filed for credit bureau monitoring services, from three credit bureaus, for four years. Of those, 2.3 million asked for monitoring for an additional six years.
Roughly 1.8 million people filed to be compensated for their time spent dealing with the breach as of Dec. 1. And nearly 282,000 made claims for out-of-pocket losses.
If there is still money in the consumer fund after making all initial payments, there will be an extended claims period through Jan. 22, 2024. That would cover people who incurred out-of-pocket losses within that time frame, and would provide compensation for some of the time spent dealing with the breach. Those claims would be paid on a first-come, first-served basis.
And if there is still money left over after that, it will be spread out among those who have filed claims, including through additional cash payments and additional credit monitoring services, according to the settlement documents.
The Equifax breach touched a nerve because the vast amount of sensitive consumer data the company collects comes from third parties like banks and other companies — and individuals have no way to opt out.
The reports created by Equifax — and two other consumer credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion — are used to calculate credit scores, the three-digit numbers that banks, insurers, lenders and others often use to make life-altering decisions. The breach illustrated how a central piece of the financial system has fallen through the regulatory cracks, despite the crucial data it handles.
Not all consumers whose data Equifax collects were affected by the breach, however. A website set up by the firm that administers claims, equifaxbreachsettlement.com, has a tool for consumers to check if their information was exposed.