Consumers from across the country have joined in a class action lawsuit against Equifax, arguing that the company’s failure to protect their data earlier this year has already led to misuse of the information.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleges that data taken from Equifax has been used in a series of frauds, from attempts at identity theft, false applications for mortgages and phony charges on credit cards.
“Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting companies used by thousands of businesses to assess the credit worthiness of customers and prospective customers, failed spectacularly in protecting that data,” according to the suit.
On Wednesday, Equifax spokeswoman Meredith Griffanti declined comment on the suit. “But we want to reassure consumers that we are remaining focused on helping them to navigate this situation and providing the best customer support possible.”
The company in September acknowledged that the hackers had accessed information on more than 145 million people.
Among the suit’s allegations: Equifax was negligent in not installing a software “patch”; that it did not monitor its own systems adequately; and that it was slow in telling consumers there was a problem.
That meant, the suit charges, consumers didn’t even have a chance to take action to protect themselves.
Much of the data released in the breach was personal, such as Social Security numbers. Experts have been worried that the data could led to a long, continual and costly series of abuses as cyber-crooks tried to rip off millions of consumers and companies.
The plaintiffs to the suit say it’s already started and the complaint lists a number of attempted frauds.
Among more than 50 plaintiffs is one Georgia resident, Robert Hunt, whose address is not given.
Hunt’s Social Security number and other personal information was compromised in the data breach, the lawsuit alleges. “As a result of the Equifax data breach, Mr. Hunt has experienced fraud, as unauthorized mortgages and loans have been applied for in his name. Also as a result of the Equifax breach, Mr. Hunt has spent numerous hours monitoring his accounts and addressing issues arising from the Equifax data breach.”
Among the law firms jointly filing the complaint were two from metro Atlanta: the law firm of former Georgia governor Roy Barnes of Marietta and Atlanta-based Doffermyre, Shields, Canfield & Knowles.
Seven other firms joined in the filing.
Should the judge allow the lawsuit proceed as a class action, most consumers who think their data was stolen as part of the Equifax breach are going to be part of the class, wrote Ken Harney in the Chicago Tribune. “If you own a home, have a mortgage or received information from Equifax that your files were accessed, you are likely part of the class. You needn’t do anything to join.”
That means there could be tens of millions of plaintiffs – or more.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to order Equifax to protect their data, to declare the companies previous actions as negligence and to order Equifax to pay damages. The suit does not mention an amount – but any settlement could be huge, considering the size of the potential class.
However, among the legal challenges facing the plaintiffs is the need to prove that any damage they have suffered is connected to the Equifax breach. And, while the 323-page complaint asserts that connection, it does not provide evidence.
Experts caution that with so much data floating through the Internet after so many other breaches, proving that the information used in a crime came from a particular breach could be hard.
Michael E. Kanell, the AJC's economics writer, has been reporting on jobs, housing and the economy at the AJC for nearly two decades. He has appeared on television and radio to analyze and report on business and economic developments.