The interim CEO for credit bureau Equifax is finally issuing a full-throated mea culpa for the massive data breach that compromise sensitive personal and financial information for about half of the adult U.S. population. In addition to extending the deadline for hack victims to freeze their credit free of charge or sign up for the company’s not terribly enticing anti-ID theft program, Equifax is also promising to offer something new: A way to “lock” your credit file (sort of, maybe, and only partially) for free (possibly).
“We were hacked. That’s the simple fact,” writes interim CEO Paulino Barros in a guest column for the Wall Street Journal. “But we compounded the problem with insufficient support for consumers. Our website did not function as it should have, and our call center couldn’t manage the volume of calls we received. Answers to key consumer questions were too often delayed, incomplete or both. We know it’s our job to earn back your trust.”
On a side note, we’re trying to figure out why a company that failed to protect the data of some 140 million Americans is posting this apology on a paywalled website that most of their victims won’t be able to access.
Moving on, Barros — who took over the top gig at Equifax on Monday after the sudden, entirely expected departure of then-CEO Richard Smith — announced a few tweaks to Equifax’s response to its self-created disaster.
“We have heard your concern that the window to sign up for free credit freezes with Equifax is too brief, so we are extending the deadline to the end of January,” writes Barros. “Likewise, we are extending the sign-up period for TrustedID Premier, the complimentary package we are offering all U.S. consumers, through the end of January.”
The most interesting aspect of Barros’ apology is also the most vague: His pledge to offer a free service that allows consumers to “easily lock and unlock access to their Equifax credit files.”
According to the CEO, once this program is launched this locking and unlocking can be done at will and “the service will be offered free, for life.”
Sounds interesting, but that’s the full extent of the details offered by Barros.
One obvious shortcoming of this proposal is clear from the CEO’s statement: The lock only applies to your Equifax credit files. There are three major credit bureaus — the other two being Experian and TransUnion — and having your credit file locked at just one isn’t going to thwart a dedicated ID thief who wants to run up bills and buy things in your name.
But more than that apparent problem, there are so many questions about this lock concept. What makes this product different from a credit “freeze”? They can’t be the same if Equifax would still charge for a freeze but offer this locking and unlocking without charge. Would there be a PIN involved?
Over at the NY Times, Ron Lieber attempted to get answers from Equifax on a series of questions but to no avail thus far.
“Why not make freezes free for life, too? Why not make them easier to use instead of inventing an entire separate mechanism?” asks Lieber. “Given the mess you face with people’s data security, why not create a three-bureau freeze or lock, so that people don’t have to worry about thieves taking data stolen from Equifax and using it through competitors, Experian or TransUnion?”
Another big question looming about this potential lock offer is whether or not folks who use the lock/unlock option will also be forced to sign away their rights. Equifax’s TrustedID credit monitoring program, which it is currently giving away free to hack victims, includes a forced arbitration clause that blocks the user from suing Equifax in court for any legal disputes involving TrustedID. The company eventually removed that clause from the contract, but only for those who are getting TrustedID free; those who pay to subscribe to TrustedID are still barred from taking the company to court over this product.
For now, the good news is that victims of the Equifax hack have more time to freeze their credit free of charge. While we are very skeptical of