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Consumers haven’t shied away from challenging Equifax since word of its massive data breach broke.
Attorneys have filed dozens of lawsuits. And more than 25,000 people have tried using a chatbot to sue the credit bureau individually, its creator says.
Victims have many legal avenues. Before you choose one, consider how it could impact your budget and future financial decisions. Several credit unions — and the industry’s biggest national trade association — have sued the credit bureau as well.
Joining a class-action lawsuit
Joining a class-action lawsuit against Equifax is no longer necessary, says former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, whose firm teamed up with other lawyers to file a complaint. At this point, potential data breach victims should wait and see what happens.
A hearing is set for Nov. 30. Many Equifax cases could be combined into a single lawsuit.
If the class action in the consolidated Equifax case is certified — or allowed to proceed as a group lawsuit — anyone who fits the description of a class member is automatically covered, says Paul Bland, executive director at a law firm called Public Justice. Class members must be notified and given the chance to opt out of the lawsuit.
Equifax would have to provide a list of potential data breach victims. But you may not receive a notice for various reasons, like having an old address on file, Bland says. If you don’t receive a letter, post card or email, look for ads or information from Equifax with further instructions.
For some victims, suing Equifax individually may be a better idea.
“If somebody has a huge amount of damage — their credit is destroyed or they’ve put down a deposit to buy a house and now they can’t get a mortgage and they lose the deposit, they lose their dream house — now their damages are enough to pay for an attorney,” says Jeff Sovern, a law professor at New York’s St. John’s University.
Barriers to class-action lawsuits
Class-action bans in arbitration clauses are normally the biggest barriers to such lawsuits, says Olsen Daines PC partner Michael Fuller, lead attorney for a class-action lawsuit filed against Equifax. Contracts with financial companies often force consumers to work with arbitrators, preventing them from using group lawsuits to resolve disputes. A rule being considered by Congress could change that.
If consumers have agreed to an arbitration clause, they’re usually stuck. But these agreements can be waived if there’s public pressure, Sovern says.
Arbitration clauses were an issue in the case involving unauthorized accounts opened by Wells Fargo. But the bank agreed to a class-action settlement after a wave of bad publicity.
After some initial confusion following the breach disclosure, Equifax has said it will not fight for arbitration on any “claims related to the cybersecurity incident.”
Occasionally, courts strike down arbitration clauses saying they’re invalid.
“Periodically somebody has screwed up the way they’ve formed it and we’re able to beat the arbitration clause and get it thrown out,” says Bland from Public Justice.
Other legal remedies
Joshua Browder recommends filing a small claim if you’re a potential data breach victim. He thinks he is. His credit card was recently used to make unauthorized purchases.
DoNotPay — a chatbot Browder introduced to challenge parking tickets and landlords — can now help consumers sue Equifax. Provide your name, address and phone number and you’ll receive documents you need to file a small claim.
Anyone across the country could soon use the chatbot and sue for up to $25,000 (depending on your state) in small claims court. So far, that’s only possible for California and New York residents.
Josh King, chief legal officer at Avvo, says filing a small claim could cost you hundreds of dollars in filing fees. That’s not the case for class-action lawsuits, which law firms fund. Also, since small claims cases can move quickly, you should wait until you know more about the hack and how you’re impacted.
Given that the hack is relatively new, you may not be able to prove you were harmed by the time the case goes before a judge, King says.
Finding a class-action lawyer
Although you may not need to file a class action in the case of Equifax, in other instances where you believe you’ve been harmed, you can find class-action lawyers using the following resources: