Ginnie Graham: Equifax breach reveals consumer vulnerability | Columnist Ginnie Graham

When the recent data hack of the Equifax credit reporting company was made public, I assumed I was among the 143 million Americans who had bits of personal information stolen.

The odds were likely, considering that’s about 58 percent of the U.S. adult population.

In Oklahoma, Attorney General Mike Hunter said Equifax estimates 1,704,777 state residents may have had information compromised.

That’s basically every person over the age of 16.

Tips and advice on dealing with the information breech centered on what to do next, including getting credit reports, maybe freezing credit and staying on top of any odd charges.

Staying cool about it, I went to the Equifax site to see how concerned to be. Immediately, it asked for the last six digits of my Social Security number and my last name.

Huh? Aren’t we supposed to avoid sharing stuff like that online?

Well, I did it anyway and found that the company believes my “information may have been impacted by this incident.” Then, it asked me to sign up for some credit fraud program. However, it only took some information and asked me to return later for the rest.

None of this inspires confidence, and it started to freak me out.

On Friday, Hunter said he was joining 34 state attorneys general in signing a letter to Equifax to address concerns over the company continuing to promote its fee-based monitoring program, consumers paying fees for a security freeze, and long wait times or the inability to speak with someone at the call center.

Name and number: Equifax is one of three companies collecting all financial transactions — banking, credit cards, mortgage payments, utilities, merchants and any other group who gets or wants my money.

Credit reports can go to potential employers, government officials, landlords, creditors and others who may be deemed to have a legitimate reason. Even the Tulsa Public Schools volunteer form asks for permission to do a credit check if the district feels it necessary.

Over time, entities have found lots of ways to get a hold of a person’s credit report. It’s no longer just about being approved or denied a line of credit to buy a major item.

National news stories going back nearly a decade show how some employers screen out job candidates based on credit score. Also, those with credit issues may have higher insurance rates or be denied coverage.

This three-digit number has become a judgment on character and in some cases wielded like a scarlet letter.

All of this makes it harder for people to dig out of the debt, which causes the lower credit score in the first place. Or there may be errors on the reports that consumers aren’t aware of.

That’s a pretty powerful, and intrusive, thing when you really think about it.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Background: The nation’s obsession with consumer credit scores is a relatively modern phenomenon.

The collection of intelligence for credit reports started in the business world on investors in the mid-1800s. Its history is full of espionage, statistical analysis and subjectivity often steeped in race, class and gender discrimination, according to Time magazine.

By the end of the Civil War, the main tenets of contemporary credit reporting were established: private-sector mass surveillance, bureaucratic information sharing and a ratings system.

Those practices started shifting to individual consumer credit in the early 20th century.

Equifax was established in 1899 as the Retail Credit Co. (RCC) and expanded to individuals. Because those early days did not have rules governing what could be gathered and shared in an official capacity, the company added a lot of personal details.

When the company announced in the late 1960s that it planned to digitize information, privacy advocate Alan Westin led a charge against the move. He argued that people would have a harder time escaping their past mistakes.

In a New York Times article from 1970, Westin wrote: “Retail Credit files may include facts, statistics, inaccuracies and rumors … about virtually every phase of a person’s life: his marital troubles, jobs, school history, childhood, sex life, and political activities. … Almost inevitably, transferring information from a manual file to a computer triggers a threat to civil liberties, to privacy, to a man’s very humanity because access is so simple.”

That was an interesting bit of prophecy.

Congress launched hearings into the credit report practices, leading to passage of the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1970. Among its requirements were to open the files to consumers, delete negative information after a period and ban data on race, sexuality and disability.

Because of the bad publicity, RCC renamed itself Equifax. Now, it might need a rebranding campaign again.

In the spotlight: Some of the company’s activities are raising red flags.

After the information breach was announced late on Sept. 7, Bloomberg reported that three top executives sold about $2 million in company stock within days of the hack. The company discovered “unauthorized access” to its systems on July 29, and three executives completed stock sales on Aug. 1-2.

Company officials say the executives didn’t know about the data breach at the time.

The Wall Street Journal discovered that Equifax had spent $500,000 on lobbying Congress in the first half of this year to weaken regulations and limit legal liabilities in situations such as being hacked.

Consumer information taken from Equifax include names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver’s license numbers. Most of those are facts, not changing over time, which could make this a headache years down the road.

In addition, about 209,000 people had credit card numbers stolen and another 182,000 people with documents disputing credit reports had those papers swiped.

When staring at the Equifax screen that alluded to my being in this drama, all this news came back to me.

Many people I know have had errors on credit reports, putting the burden of proof on them to sort it out. It can take years. Often, people don’t know about problems until they get denied credit or lose out on a job.

That’s unfair, considering the power these companies wield. But we as a country handed these for-profit entities that influence.

A person is more than a number, and these companies aren’t perfect. Maybe it’s time to rethink it all and stop relying so much on these scores.

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