When the enormous Equifax data breach was made public on September 7, it was heavily reported by the media for days. Only a week later, Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, introduced the FREE bill. FREE stands for Freedom from Equifax Exploitation. The bill begins, perhaps for the first time, to address the abuses of the credit reporting industry. In particular, the FREE bill would require Equifax to allow the unlimited, on-demand and free ability to freeze and unfreeze individual credit histories. One or two days after every major news outlet reported the FREE bill, all mention of it dropped from sight. This desperately-needed legislation will no doubt die a slow and quiet death in committee. I’m accustomed to the continuing failure of our legislators to act in the public’s best interest while representing the corporations, the banks and the super wealthy. But, so much of the blame for this travesty belongs to our mainstream media. If the news outlets were to give the FREE bill as much attention, and especially continuous coverage, as it does natural and manmade disasters, the story might start to gain traction. Then our newly-energized legislators might finally remember who they are really supposed to be representing. Obviously, news reporters will explain that it is their job to cover the breaking stories like Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the wildfires in California. But I suspect there is more to the deafening quiet surrounding the FREE bill. Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one (A.J. Leibling). Freezing credit and personal information is an essential weapon in protecting us from these data breaches. The way the system works now, freezing and unfreezing one’s account costs at least $ 10. When applying for a car loan or a mortgage, an applicant needs to unfreeze his or her credit history in each of the three major bureaus. This costs at least $ 30. And, it would cost another $ 30 to re-freeze the accounts. FREE would greatly simplify the process and cost nothing. It seems like a reasonable requirement. After all, should Equifax be profiting from the hardships caused by its own incompetence and negligence? Unfortunately, FREE represents a major threat to Equifax’s business model. Besides losing all those $ 10 fees, if everyone gets into the habit of freezing their histories, it would threaten Equifax’s ability to sell its data in bulk to businesses. As it stands today, the credit reporting industry has too much power over all our lives. And, it obviously thinks the records in those databases – all our personal and financial information – are its personal property to use in any way it sees fit. This cannot be allowed to continue. Decades after the memory of the recent natural disasters and the Las Vegas shooting have disappeared, damage from the Equifax leak will suddenly appear like a time bomb going off. Think of young people in college or newly-graduated. Most of them have their limited credit histories on record in the bureaus. The Equifax hackers can sit on all this data and let it age. Ten or twenty years from now, many of victims will hopefully be making much more money. Also they will own more wealth in the form of savings accounts and investments. It is then that the hackers will strike leaving the victims with no clue where it all came from. Frank W. Abagnale is an expert con man turned security expert. He wrote a memoir about his exploits and misdeeds entitled, “Catch Me If You Can” which was later made into a popular movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Mr. Abagnale knows well the implications of data breaches like this one. He knows the importance of taking every precaution to protect personal and financial information. Yet, even he couldn’t protect his own family from being victimized. After one of his sons applied to college, he was advised that a credit card account had been opened years earlier in the boys’ name. And, the bank issuing the credit card wouldn’t even allow his son to close the account. It required the influence of Mr. Abagnale’s contacts in the financial industry to get the account closed. This might help to illustrate how insidious and daunting is the problem we are facing.
What will make the media start to cover the public’s needs rather than those of the corporate elite?
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