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Equifax Continues To Scramble After Massive Breach


We have more today from the credit bureau Equifax as it tries to contain fallout from one of the worst cybersecurity breaches ever. As many as 143 million people had their data compromised. Hackers got Social Security numbers, names, addresses, even driver's license numbers. Equifax's CEO has resigned, and now the interim CEO has announced more free help for people worried that their information may be used by criminals.

NPR's Chris Arnold is following this story and joins us now. And Chris, Equifax is making lots of moves this week to try to make up for the hack. Explain this latest one, the free help offer.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hi, Robert. Yes, there's a lot happening. So the new interim CEO, Paulino Barros, who's only been in the job a couple of days because, as you said, the old CEO has just stepped down - so Paulino Barros is now saying by January 31 there's going to be a new credit locking service, he's calling it. And that this is going to allow people to easily lock and unlock access to their Equifax credit report. And that people will be able to use this for free for the rest of their lives.

SIEGEL: And what is Equifax saying about how exactly that's going to work?

ARNOLD: Well, we don't have all the details, but it'll probably look like some of the credit lock services that the credit reporting firms have already been offering. They've been coming out with these things. So most of them you've had to pay for. One way this works is that you can get an app on your phone, and basically you turn off access to your credit report. So nobody but you is going to be using it in any way. And then if you're, say, going to buy a car, you can go into an auto dealership and say, I'd like to buy a car. And then they say, OK, we need to get financing lined up. And then you can, you know, tap your phone in a couple of places, and voila, your credit report becomes available, and you can buy the car. So that's basically how it works.

SIEGEL: So if you were hacked, does this solve all of your problems? What kind of protection does it offer if in fact your information was compromised in the hack?

ARNOLD: No, it definitely does not solve all your problems. I mean first, there are three credit reporting firms. And it's unclear if this would automatically lock all three or if you'd have to go around to all three and try to do this. But also this just locks your credit report, right? And the bad guys could still file a fake tax return in your name. They could get a fake driver's license maybe with information they got even from this hack and use that to open a bank account and start writing bad checks in your name. Some banks don't check your credit report when you open a checking account. And of course hackers could still get your credit card number and run up charges and do what they've always done there. So this is definitely not a cure-all.

SIEGEL: But is it seen as a good idea, a good thing?

ARNOLD: Well, you might think that. So we put this question to Chris Hoofnagle. He's at UC Berkeley Law School. And he said at least in the existing credit lock services from Equifax and Trans Union, there is some important fine print.

CHRIS HOOFNAGLE: So you might sign up because it's free and it sounds like a good idea to protect yourself against identity theft. But if you read the fine print, you'll see that it gives these companies the ability to sell your personal information to anyone they want.

ARNOLD: So you can opt out, the company says, but Hoofnagle says many - most people don't. And so Equifax might be helping you with one hand and then selling your information to telemarketers and subprime lenders with the other. And you've agreed to that without realizing it by signing up for this service, basically.

SIEGEL: And this is part of the very offer that Equifax is making to try to make good on the big breach.

ARNOLD: Right. So what experts are saying is, look; stick with more vanilla options for now until we find out more. A credit freeze is good. And we'll go from there as we learn more.

SIEGEL: NPR's Chris Arnold, thanks.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.