How did they get that? Credit reporting and your personal information…

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In the wake of the massive breach of consumer information at Equifax, many people are asking how, and why, Equifax has so much information about so many of us. One of your first questions might be something like:

“I have never been a customer of Equifax; how can they have any of my personal information?”

Many consumers may never have even heard of Equifax before, let alone been a customer of their consumer services. So how could so many have been affected?Equifax is one of a few national companies that collect and report consumer credit information. These companies, often called “credit bureaus” or “credit reporting agencies”, get regular reports about your credit history from banks, financial institutions, landlords, utilities and even employers. The credit bureaus then put all of this information from different businesses about your use of credit together into a single file — your “credit report”. Some of the bureaus have developed a scoring system to rate how “safe”, or how “risky” your credit habits may be, compared to other consumers. Any time you apply for a loan, credit card, utility account, etc., the lender will get your credit report from one or more of these bureaus. Using the credit report, the lender will review your credit history to decide whether to open an account for you, and what interest rate they wish to charge (often based upon the perceived “risk”).

The credit bureaus also supply information to companies for marketing purposes. If you have ever received an invitation to apply for a credit card in the mail, or other kinds of solicitations like that, it is likely the sender got your mailing address from a credit bureau. Marketers buy mailing lists from the credit bureaus that are tailored to meet their desired customer characteristics. For example, a credit card company may wish to market a new travel credit card. They might contact the credit bureau to buy mailing lists of people who have other travel cards, airline accounts, etc., and who may meet certain age, income or other demographic criteria.

With so much of our personal, sensitive financial information at their disposal, you may wonder how these credit bureaus are regulated. There are some specific laws, both federal and state, that govern how credit bureaus should report, manage and protect your information. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) sets out such standards as the rights of consumers to dispute items on their credit report, security requirements, and more. Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act includes a subchapter on Fair Credit Reporting that requires, among other protections, that a company get your consent before they can access your credit report. Both federal and Vermont state law require each of the credit bureaus to provide you with a free credit report each year (meaning you can get two from each bureau, each year). There are also specific laws that require companies to keep sensitive personal information as secure as possible, and to report to law enforcement and consumers quickly if they discover a breach of those security measures.

It is likely that policy-makers in the state legislatures, Congress and regulatory agencies will be reviewing the current laws and rules in place to protect consumer information, considering the scale of the breach at Equifax. If you have concerns or thoughts about the current law, you may wish to contact your legislators to discuss these issues and keep up to date on any proposed changes. Our office will be active in these areas, and will be working to keep Vermonters informed throughout. If you have questions about consumer protections, or a complaint about a business that you would like assistance with, contact our consumer hotline, or file a complaint online.

Announcing Vermonter of the Month: Sarah Waring

This is the first of a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Sarah Waring serves as the Executive Director of the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) building a regenerative, locally based, healthy food system in the NEK and beyond.

Sarah was born and raised in Glover, VT, but spent a decade outside of the state, working in the Rocky Mountains and in Washington DC. Her background includes community development, federal land use planning and management, conservation, outdoor education and non-profit work.

Since coming to the Center for an Agricultural Economy in 2013, she has worked with the Board and staff there to increase the viability of the VT Food Venture Center (VFVC), a shared-use food business incubator and food hub, designed to support entrepreneurs and farmers with industrial kitchens, storage, and technical assistance. She graciously took the time from her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions:

What inspires your work with CAE and VFVC?
First and foremost, I get to work with visionary people, who are also grounded, intelligent and hardworking. That’s motivation to do my own best work. Whether its our staff and volunteers, the farmers who are stewarding the land, or the entrepreneurs who are growing their businesses, we have wonderful people around us. But then secondly, our mission is critical to our region – because we need to build a place-based economy, with local ownership. Its also critical to the globe – because our food system is broken. We can make changes to global trends, like hunger, global warming and more, by starting locally to fix our food system. So that’s the urgency behind the work we do!

What impact has VFVC had on your community?
In the past few years, the VFVC has developed Farm and Food Business Services; working with 18-20 farmers and 12-15 food businesses each year to deep dive into operational viability. The team has also begun the state’s only Farm to Institution processing program – purchasing local farm products from small and medium scale farmers to process and selling to colleges, hospitals and schools. In three years, the sales of locally grown and processed vegetables through the VFVC has grown by 230%.
What have you learned from your work at CAE?
I’ve learned more about food safety than I ever knew before! But really, I do get to work with folks who have deep knowledge of the land, the plants or animals they take care of, or the business model and the food product they are creating. As far as the work we do to support these folks, I’ve been lucky to re-learn that we can’t do this larger food system work alone. All things that are most worthwhile will take partnership, and our organization and team works hard to build trust with our partners.
What advice do you have for others looking to impact their community?
I think the best thing I can say is this – look at the assets and gaps in your own region. Take your time to do your homework on what efforts already exist, and make sure you practice collaboration – because goals and activities go further with many hands being involved! We can create positive impacts on our own, but we can create them even faster with others.

Identity Theft and Information on the Equifax Data Security Breach

What can I do, right now, to protect my information?

To check if you were personally affected by the breach, you may visit Equifax’s website: www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.

To place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit files, visit the credit reporting agencies’ websites linked below or call:

EQUIFAX or 866-349-5191, select option 3 for the automated system or option 5 for a representative
EXPERIAN or 1-888-397-3742, select option 2
TRANSUNION or 1-888-909-8872, enter your ZIP code when prompted, then selected option 3
INNOVIS or 1-800-540-2505

The best way to know that no one is using your personal information is to monitor your credit. We are recommending that Vermonters review their credit reports now, and regularly, to make sure that no unauthorized accounts are being reported. You can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies annually, online, at www.annualcreditreport.com, or you can mail in a form.

Concerned about protecting your minor children from identity theft? The Federal Trade Commission has excellent resources on child credit protection.

Additionally, you may want to consider placing a security freeze on your credit reports. This is the most effective step you can take to block unauthorized use of your personal information. However, it does carry some costs and can create some minor difficulty if you need get a loan, credit card or other credit account. A security freeze does not affect your ability to use accounts that you have now. Find out more about freezing your credit files below and from the Federal Trade Commission.

Who is Equifax? Why should I be concerned?

Equifax is a consumer credit reporting agency. Equifax gathers and provides credit information based on an individual’s borrowing and bill-paying habits.

Equifax suffered a major data security breach on July 29, 2017. Over 240,000 Vermonters were potentially impacted and are vulnerable to identity theft. The information stolen includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers. In addition, credit card numbers and certain dispute documents with personal information were accessed. Equifax will be sending letters to all affected consumers.

As of September 10th, we can assure Vermonters of the following:

  1. No waiver terms or binding arbitration will be imposed on consumers who go to the Equifax website to learn if they are affected.
  2. No waiver terms or binding arbitration will be imposed on consumers who enroll in the one year of free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring (“TrustedID”) being offered as a result of this breach.
  3. No waiver terms or binding arbitration will be imposed on consumers who request a credit report freeze as a result of this breach.
  4. Equifax also provides an “opt out” of the standard waiver or binding arbitration clause related to its terms of use for other products and services beyond items 1-3 above. Consumers may do so by writing within 30 days to: Equifax Consumer Services LLC, Attn.: Arbitration Opt-Out, P.O. Box 105496, Atlanta, GA 30348. Be sure to include your name, address, and Equifax User ID, as well as a clear statement that you do not wish to resolve disputes with Equifax through arbitration.

You can contact the Attorney General’s office at 800-649-2424 or AGO.CAP@vermont.gov with further questions.

What is identity theft?

A breach does not necessarily mean you are a victim of identity theft. A breach means you are now susceptible to identity theft.

Identity theft is the unauthorized use of another person’s personal information to obtain credit, goods, services, money or property (for more information on Vermont laws regarding privacy and data security, click here).

Identity theft may involve fraudulent use of credit card or bank account information.  In some cases, your social security number and other personal information may be used to fraudulently obtain driver’s licenses, lines of credit, loans or other consumer accounts.

I think I am a victim of identity theft. What steps should I take?

  • Review your credit reports carefully for any unauthorized accounts. You can obtain your free credit report from each of the Credit Reporting Bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com.  If you find anything that should not be there, be sure to save a copy of the report.  Then, contact the credit reporting agency to dispute all inaccurate items.
  • Place a fraud alert or consider a freeze on your credit reports. Freezing your credit report could help prevent unauthorized creation of new accounts using your information. Freezing your credit report does not mean freezing your bank account, or that you won’t be able to use your credit card. You can find out more information from the Federal Trade Commission about fraud alerts and freezing your credit files.
  • To place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit files, contact the credit reporting agencies listed here:

EQUIFAX or 866-349-5191, press option 3 for the automated system or option 5 for a representative
EXPERIAN or 1-888-397-3742
TRANSUNION or 1-800-680-7289
INNOVIS or 1-800-540-2505

        You’ll need to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number               and other personal information. Fees vary based on where you live, but commonly         range from $5 to $10 to place a freeze.

        After receiving your freeze request, each credit reporting company will send you a           confirmation letter containing a unique PIN (personal identification number) or                 password. Keep the PIN or password in a safe place. You will need it if you choose         to lift the freeze.

  • Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
  • File an “identity theft” police report and ask for a copy for your records. Find your local police agency.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Write down the name of anyone you talk to, what s/he told you, and the date of the conversation.
  • Follow-up in writing with all contacts you’ve made about the ID theft on the phone or in person. Use certified mail, return receipt requested, for all correspondence regarding the theft.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence or forms relating to the ID theft.
  • Keep the originals of supporting documentation, like police reports and letters to and from creditors; send copies only.
  • Keep old files even if you believe the problem is resolved.

I still have questions, where can I find out more?

Find out more about identity theft by visiting the Federal Trade Commission. You can also contact us at 800-649-2424 or AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.