Credit bureaus serve a critical function in our financial system and have become a daily part of every American’s life. 

Every day, these institutions intersect in people’s attempts to get credit cards, car loans, mortgages and other items.  Consumers may know about their involvement in their lives, such as when they directly request a credit report, but sometimes they may not, like when a company requests a background check to determine their eligibility for a cell phone.  The ability of Americans to easily access credit is one of the many things that make our economy and country the envy of the world.  It is also why the recent Equifax breach is so shocking and concerning.

On September 7, Equifax, one of the country’s three largest credit reporting agencies, disclosed that approximately 143 million people had their names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and in some cases driver’s license numbers compromised in a massive data breach.  As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has oversight of the credit bureaus, I called in former Equifax Chief Executive Officer Richard Smith to get answers to some of our many questions, such as why it took Equifax six weeks to disclose the breach publicly, why executives were trading during that time, what kind of cybersecurity measures the company employs and how the company intends to minimize harm to consumers and make them whole.

Cybersecurity is one of the most pressing issues facing companies, consumers and governments alike, and is one of the biggest threats to our financial system.  The amount of data that the private industry and the government collect and store is very concerning.  Collecting such massive amounts of personal financial information creates an intrinsic vulnerability.  Congress will be having meaningful discussions about how to protect and limit access to it.

While those discussions are ongoing, Idahoans should take every precaution to secure their data and protect themselves in the wake of a breach.  First, you should find out if your information has been compromised by visiting the Equifax website.  If you have been affected, you can sign up for a fraud alert through Equifax.  Equifax has also announced free credit freezes through January, as well as a free lifetime service that will allow customers to lock and unlock their credit files.  I encourage you to explore these options to determine whether they are right for you, and continue to monitor your credit reports and bank accounts for any unusual activity in the meantime.

I also encourage you to take proactive steps toward protecting your privacy.  The Federal Trade Commission offers helpful tips on how to safeguard your personal information.  General advice includes knowing who you share information with; storing and disposing of your personal information securely, especially your Social Security number; asking questions before deciding to share your personal information; and maintaining appropriate security on your computers and other electronic devices.

In this digital age, it is almost virtually impossible to prevent entities from collecting and storing massive amounts of personal, private information.  We have seen that no one is immune when it comes to cyberattacks, and we all need to take the necessary steps to prioritize cybersecurity and resiliency.  Equifax is just the latest in a series of massive data breaches at major companies, demonstrating that more needs to be done to ensure customer information is protected.  Private and public entities must prioritize maintaining strong safeguards to protect any and all personally identifiable information of U.S. consumers.  Both must be held accountable for protecting and limiting access to that information.