How Equifax Breach Could Cost US Consumers $4.1 Billion

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Among several steps consumers can take to try to minimize the damage caused by the Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) leak of personally identifiable information on 145.5 million Americans is to place a freeze on their credit report. Depending on which state you live in, that can range in cost from zero to $10, and a request to “unfreeze” or “thaw” the report may cost a similar amount.

Only four states — Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina — require the firms to provide both freezes and “thaws” at no charge to consumers.  Four other states — Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New York — require the firms to provide freezes at no charge but allow them to charge for thawing the freeze either temporarily or permanently. Victims of identity theft get free freezes and thaws in every state, and many states waive or reduce fees for certain categories of consumers.

If all 148 million consumers in the other 42 states and the District of Columbia ordered a credit freeze today, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (NYSE: TRU), the three major U.S. credit reporting companies, would rack up $4.1 billion in revenues, according to researchers at U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG).

The fees the firms charge vary by state. In Texas, for example, a freeze costs $10 at Experian and TransUnion and $10.83 at Equifax (includes tax). Temporary or permanent thaws cost the same. To get the best protection from misuse of the data stolen from Equifax, consumers are urged to freeze their credit reports at all three firms. That will cost Texans $30.83.

USPIRG calculates that fees to freeze all records for all Texans would dump $509 million into the revenue stream of the three firms. An interactive map at the USPIRG website gives the fees in all 50 states.

On Tuesday, former Equifax CEO Richard Smith appeared before a U.S. House committee and outlined the company’s response to the data breach. During questioning by committee members, it became clear that neither Smith nor anyone else at Equifax felt any sense of urgency or had any real understanding of what had happened. For a good description of the company’s lackadaisical response, see the story at Wired.com.

As of Monday, two bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and one in the House to make credit freezes free nationwide. The bills should also include a refund to consumers who have paid for the freezes at any time since the three credit reporting agencies began selling personal information on consumers and charging them for exercising their right to keep the information private. Except, of course, when the firms carelessly expose it.