Paulino do Reo Barros Jr. was named interim CEO of Equifax Tuesday. Barros replaced departing CEO Richard Smith after its massive security hack exposed the data of 143 million Americans. One of his first moves was writing a Wall Street Journal column in which he offered “his sincere and total apology to every consumer affected by our data breach.”
Barros goes on to admit the company's website to help people didn’t work, their call center couldn’t handle all the calls and that they basically screwed up big time. But he buries the lede a bit.
By the time you get tired of the mea culpas, Barros writes:
By Jan. 31, Equifax will offer a new service allowing all consumers the option of controlling access to their personal credit data. The service we are developing will let consumers easily lock and unlock access to their Equifax credit files. You will be able to do this at will. It will be reliable, safe and simple. Most significantly, the service will be offered free, for life.
Let’s break this down.
The new service
Lots of people can look at your credit report and they do so all the time. Lenders will check your credit when deciding whether to give you a loan and how much interest to charge. Potential employers, insurers and landlords might check your credit to get an idea of your financial history. Credit card issuers will see whether you qualify for a pre-approved credit card offer, etc.
Meanwhile, unless you pay, you get to look at your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — once a year. (You can pull those free reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.) And you can’t stop other people from accessing your credit report unless you get a credit freeze.
A freeze blocks anyone from pulling your credit report. This helps prevent thieves from taking our lines of credit in your name (since service providers and lenders can't see if you're worth doing business with), but it also stops you from applying for a loan or doing anything else that requires a credit check. You can “thaw” your credit report, but it's not always a seamless process. Plus, you usually have to pay each credit bureau a fee of $2 to $12 to freeze and unfreeze your credit. Equifax is currently waiving its freeze fee in light of the data breach; Barros said it would do so until the end of January. It's extending the signup period for the free credit monitoring services its offering consumers through that date as well.
After that, Barros seems to be saying Equifax will allow everyone to freeze or unfreeze their accounts anytime free of charge. (Equifax didn’t respond to emailed questions about Barros’ column.) This would be a big deal, especially because whoever broke into Equifax stole Social Security numbers.
Thieves can use your SSN to open new credit accounts, get medical care, steal your government benefits or tax returns and generally wreak a ton of havoc. Having the ability to “easily lock and unlock access to their Equifax credit files” would be a helpful tool to prevent fraud without inconveniencing yourself, though people currently still have to pay for freezes at Experian and TransUnion, the other big credit bureau. And you need to block access to all three credit reports if you really want to prevent identity theft.
Of course, this depends on if Equifax can actually deliver. The company hasn’t exactly inspired confidence since the announcing the data breach, hence the interim CEO and the apology in a national newspaper.
If you think your information was stolen — and it probably was since the breach affected 143 million Americans — we’ve put together a guide on how you can survive the Equifax hack.