Equifax breach: 6 things Congress can do to help

Elizabeth Warren to Equifax: You're making millions off this screwup
Elizabeth Warren to Equifax: You're making millions off this screwup

After members of Congress grilled former Equifax CEO Richard Smith at four hearings this week, one thing is clear: There is outrage on both sides of the aisle over the massive data breach.

But what will they do about it?

The three major credit rating agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, aren't going away. They are an integral part of the U.S. credit system, and it would be difficult for consumers to get a mortgage, a loan, or even a credit card without them.

Some Democrats are calling for a total overhaul of the industry because credit rating agencies don't currently have an economic incentive to help protect consumers' data.

"Equifax won't be losing any business as a result of its failures... And that's because those consumers aren't actually your customers. They are your product," Senator Al Franken told Smith during a hearing Wednesday.

Each of the three agencies have credit reports on most, if not all, American consumers and they sell that data to lenders.

What Congress can do now is give consumers more control over what companies can see their personal data and when. While that won't prevent future hacks, it could help consumers protect themselves from identity theft.

Related: Former Equifax CEO testifies before Congress

1. Make credit freezes free

Putting a freeze on your credit report is the best way to stop fraudulent accounts from being opened in your name.

But they cost most consumers money and a patchwork of state laws dictate how they work and how much they cost. Fees typically range between $2 and $10.

And you have to lift the freeze if you want to open a line of credit yourself -- often triggering another fee.

Plus, it's not enough to freeze your credit report with just one of the three credit bureaus. You must contact the other two to freeze reports there as well.

Equifax will offer free "credit locks" for life, starting in January. They will work like credit freezes, but would be more user friendly, Smith has said.

But consumer advocates say that's not enough.

"Consumers deserve to have a right to this control by law, and without cost," said a letter to Congress signed by 17 consumer groups.

Related: What you need to know about Equifax's credit locks

Since the Equifax breach, three bills have been introduced in Congress that would make credit freezes free at all three agencies. Another bill would make credit freezes free for fraud victims, senior citizens, and active duty service members, and limit the cost for all other consumers to $3.

2. Simplify the freezing process

The process currently varies by state. Sometimes consumers can do it online or over the phone, but others may have to send in verifying documents through the mail.

But a new federal law could create a standard process that requires the credit rating agencies to comply with your request quickly.

Senator Elizabeth Warren's Freedom from Equifax Exploitation (FREE) Act would require credit rating agencies to put a freeze in place within one business day of the request. It would allow 15 minutes to lift a freeze if requested online or by phone, and one day if by mail.

Related: What's a credit freeze and should you do it?

Typically, you'll be given a PIN that you'll need to remember in order to lift your freeze in the future. Smith has said that Equifax's new "credit lock" tool won't require a PIN. Instead, a consumer would log into their account with a username and password and be able to toggle a lock on and off from an app on their smartphone.

3. Give consumers unlimited access to credit reports

A credit report should show if someone has opened a new credit card account or loan in your name. Not all lenders report information to all three agencies though, so experts suggest reviewing all three.

But under federal law, consumers are allowed to request just one copy of their credit report from each of the credit rating agencies for free annually. After that, consumers can be charged up to $17 for an additional copy of their report, depending on where they live.

4. Change the dispute process

If your identity is stolen, it can be a cumbersome process to correct your credit reports. Consumers must contact each credit rating agency to prove the information is wrong, and sometimes seek legal help.

The Comprehensive Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act, introduced by Representative Maxine Waters, would change the system so that the burden to prove whether something is accurate shifts from the consumer to the credit rating agency.

5. Allow consumers to opt out of Equifax

Consumers currently have no choice. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion have their personal information whether they like it or not.

On one hand, it could hurt consumers if they pull out of the credit rating system. Credit reports makes it easier for banks to decide to lend to us. But some members of Congress suggested that consumers should at least be given the option to have their data stored by the other two rating agencies only.

Related: Why Equifax will keep profiting off your personal information

"Do we need to change the consumer reporting industry in this country to give Americans ownership of the data? For example, should they be allowed to request that you delete the data from your systems?" asked Senator Sherrod Brown.

Smith did not agree. The service Equifax provides consumers is "vital," he said.

At a separate hearing, cybersecurity expert Jamie Winterton said a choice to opt out could create an incentive for credit rating agencies to put stronger security in place. Without the data, a credit rating agency doesn't have a product to sell.

No proposed legislation includes a provision that would allow consumes to opt out of a credit rating agency.

6. Replace Social Security numbers

After other breaches, like the one at Yahoo, changing your password may be all you need to do to protect yourself. But the Equifax hack exposed Social Security numbers, which stay with you forever.

Smith told Congress it should consider creating a new way to verify identity. But when asked during a hearing Wednesday what the replacement could be, Smith said he did not know.

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