Consumer groups take aim at Equifax over arbitration clause

Consumer watchdogs criticized Atlanta-based Equifax on Friday for its offer of a package of credit and identity theft protection services in the wake of a giant data breach, because of fine print they say could limit consumers’ recourse in the event of dispute.

Consumer groups say a clause in the terms of use bind them to arbitration, giving away consumers’ right to a trial.

On Thursday, Equifax reported a breach exposed the personal information, including Social Security numbers, of 143 million U.S. consumers. In response, the company said it would provide a free one-year package of credit monitoring and ID protection, which CEO Rick Smith called an unprecedented step.

The terms of use for the TrustedID Premier service said “all claims, disputes, or controversies raised” by consumers or the company “shall be finally settled by arbitration.”

“By consenting to submit your claims to arbitration, you will be forfeiting your right to bring or participate in any class action,” the terms state.

Many consumer groups worry that clause meant victims of the hack couldn’t sue or join a class-action case against Equifax for the cyber breach.

In a statement, Equifax disputed that. The company said the arbitration clause and waiver for class action cases “applies to the free credit file monitoring and identity theft protection products, and not the cybersecurity incident.”

Corporations in many industries have pushed to move disputes with customers to arbitration rather than the courts.

Lawsuits are costly, take longer and in many cases, businesses have an upper hand outside the traditional justice system, an investigation by The New York Times found.

Consumer Watchdog of California said in a news release that the offer may violate California law, and asked the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, to investigate.

Eric Sneiderman, the New York attorney general, called the clauses “unacceptable and unenforceable,” on Twitter. He later said, after Equifax released a statement to clarify that the terms do not apply to the cyber-attack, that his office is “continuing to closely review” the situation.

Liz Coyle of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said the clauses are buried in fine print few will read in a time of distress.

“Nobody reads the fine print. It’s really outrageous,” she said.

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