Equifax data breach: A look back at our biggest story of 2017

Credit bureau press releases don’t normally get too much attention, but one issued by Equifax Inc. on September 7, 2017, was impossible to ignore.

That’s when the Atlanta-based company, one of the three major credit-reporting bureaus in the United States, announced a “cybersecurity incident” in which “criminals” had exploited a web portal application, exposing millions of Americans to identity theft.

Equifax data breach: A look back at the biggest consumer story of 2017

The news immediately sent a shudder through the financial world; Equifax’s stock value plunged nearly $4 billion in the days after the disclosure. The company’s reputation continued to sink as it was disclosed that as many as 145.5 million Americans were impacted by the breach.

Equifax had been in trouble before: In 1970, the company, then called Retail Credit Corp., was assailed in congressional testimony by 40-year-old Columbia University Professor Alan Westin, who would become the nation’s foremost authority on privacy law, according to Wired magazine. Westin argued that the Atlanta-based company was encroaching on Americans’ rights by keeping a secret database on their lives and using their financial mishaps against them.

The hearings shed a bad light on Retail Credit (Equifax), which was just about to computerize its trove of personal files on American consumers. “Almost inevitably, transferring information from a manual file into a computer triggers a threat to civil liberties, to privacy, to a man’s very humanity because access is so simple,” Westin argued, according to the New York Times.

The company relented on many of its programs and the hearings birthed the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which empowered consumers to take control of the personal information companies stored on them.

Fast forward nearly 47 years and Equifax is again in the headlines, this time for a breach that has undermined the public’s trust. Money expert Clark Howard summarized the thoughts of many, when he said in an impassioned video: “When your whole business is cataloging information on Americans without our permission, packaging us, slicing and dicing us, building these dossiers, and then selling us off over and over again, you gotta keep our data secure.”

Equifax data breach: What did we learn?

For Equifax, the ramifications were felt immediately as the company’s customer service reps were swamped with irate callers. To try to quell the furor, the company rolled out free identity theft protection and credit monitoring — but hidden in the terms of service was language that customers had to agree not to sue them (they later dropped this clause).

To make matters worse, next came the revelation that the firm waited three weeks before telling its own board and several months before informing consumers about the massive breach. Thirteen days after the public first learned of the hack, Equifax’s board voted Richard Smith out as chairman/CEO effectively immediately.

In the aftermath, Congressional hearings brought scrutiny upon Equifax and other companies involved in high-profile breaches. The companies pledged to do better and respond quicker to cybersecurity threats. One state, New York, moved to strengthen consumer protections in the wake of the debacle.

In a statement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “The current status quo of allowing consumers to be penalized for having their data breached is unacceptable, and with the addition of these new protections, this administration will hold agencies accountable and help protect New Yorkers and their financial future.”

Equifax data breach: Freezing your credit

Money Expert Clark Howard has long preached that consumers should take control of their financial fates by setting up credit freeze.

“Credit freeze is something that I’ve been obsessed with for more than a decade. I did it the day I could, the first day credit freeze existed, I froze my credit. Why? Because it removes a worry mark off of your life,” he said in a video the week the Equifax story broke. “It allows you to shut down access to your credit. No one can apply for credit as if they’re you, anywhere ever because you have locked down your credit with the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian – and you’ve done so at a very low fee… you can’t apply for credit and no one else can either.”

Clark also said that the day would come when you may need to unfreeze your credit, perhaps around the holidays. “Now, this is really a problem as you get to the Christmas season and you’re in a store and  they got some sort of great deal and instant credit – but you can’t get instant credit. You gotta go home first, and thaw your credit,” he said.

 See our Credit Freeze Guide for step-by-step instructions

RELATED: 5 things to expect when freezing your credit

Equifax data breach: The road ahead

Although it’s been months since the hack and your credit report may show no suspicious activity, we’re not out of the woods yet — not by a long shot. Clark Howard has said he expects the Equifax breach to affect consumers for years to come. Here’s what you should be doing on a regular basis right now:

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