Guest Editorials, Opinion

Holding out for justice after breach

Victims of the massive Equifax data breach may have to wait awhile longer for settlement payments, but the end result could be worth their patience.

Consumer groups like the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute and Center for Class Action Fairness in Washington, D.C., are stepping up to demand better compensation for the 147 million consumers whose data was exposed. Under the terms of a 2019 settlement, claimants could receive as little as a few dollars each due to the number of claims that were filed.

Those who contend out-of-pocket losses and/or time spent resolving the particulars of their breach can seek reimbursement for up to $20,000 for losses traceable to the breach if the claimants didn’t receive reimbursement through other means. Most are not likely to receive large payouts. The deadline to apply is January 2024.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, himself a victim of the breach, touted the record $700 million settlement in 2019. When asked about the delay in executing the settlement, his office said in an email that it was “disappointed that appeals will delay the culmination and redress for those who were impacted.”

But Shapiro should consider the message sent by such a comparatively meager settlement. Equifax should have to pay a steeper price for the breach.

Equifax’s missteps were many, from failing to take steps to adequately protect consumers’ data in the first place to delaying making the information public for more than a month. The breach allowed outside eyes to view private information like Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and even credit card numbers. To date, there haven’t been many reports of identity theft tied to the breach, but this doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the future.

The company suffered in terms of its stock value, and $700 million may seem at first glance like a significant fine, but for a company with a current net worth in the billions and a CEO who earned $90 million on the way out the door after the breach, this doesn’t seem to be an especially painful penalty. It should hurt a little more. 

Those whose private information was breached could collect a maximum of $125 from the company, plus an additional $25 an hour for time spent trying to undo damage from the breach under the terms of the 2019 settlement. The deadline to file for this payout was in 2020. But with the number of claimants, that $125 will shrink significantly, according to the Equifax website. This isn’t adequate compensation considering the sensitivity of data stolen.

Consumers who can prove actual losses caused by the breach can continue to file claims until 2024 or until the restitution fund is emptied. But there’s no guarantee losses won’t occur after that date.

The longer the court battles drag on, the easier it is for public outrage to fade, and frustrated consumers may be tempted to think that small compensation is better than nothing at all. Unless an appellate court finds the initial settlement unsatisfactory, it will stand. This is shortsighted. The appeals will eventually process, and people’s patience could be well rewarded with additional recompense. Consumers and advocates, including Shapiro, should support the appeals process and hold Equifax’s feet to the proverbial fire.

This editorial  first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.