Equifax Settlement: Here's How You Can Claim $250, And Possibly a Lot More

Virtually all Americans affected by the Equifax data breach may be eligible to claim $250 from the credit reporting agency — and possibly a lot more — due to a historic settlement covering 147 million consumers whose personal data was stolen two years ago.

Some victims of the breach may be able to easily claim an additional $125, as well.

On the heels of one of the largest data breaches in American history, credit bureau Equifax recently agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit in the most costly penalty stemming from a data breach to date: around $780 million.

When health insurer Anthem settled litigation in 2017 for $115 million over a data breach affecting around 80 million people, it was at the time the largest ever settlement for a data breach.

Equifax Data Breach
Close-up of the hand of a man holding a mobile phone open to the web site of credit bureau Equifax, with text on the website reading "Equifax Cybersecurity Incident", providing steps for consumers to take following a security breach at the company, San Ramon, California, September 28, 2017. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

To find out if you're a victim of the Equifax data breach, the company has set up a website where U.S. consumers can query a database and file claims: EquifaxBreachSettlement.com.

A pot of $380.5 million will be set aside by the credit bureau to reimburse any of the 147 million Americans whose data was stolen in May 2017 by unknown hackers. Equifax agreed to add an additional $125 million to the compensation fund if the well runs dry.

While individual consumers affected by the breach could be able to claim upwards of $20,000 from Equifax, there are varying levels of compensation that the company is more and less willing to hand out. Equifax is providing consumers with 10 years of free credit monitoring, doling out $125 apiece to individuals who decide not to enroll in this free service because they have already obtained their own credit monitoring.

On the landing page of the settlement website, those who wish to file a claim should click "File a Claim Today" in order to be directed to a digital copy of the claims form. That document can be printed out and mailed to the settlement administrator or filed online. Consumers will be asked to enter personal information to receive reimbursement, or any of the other settlement benefits, and will have to select exactly which type of compensation they are seeking.

The kinds of supporting documentation that can be attached to an individual claim include account statements showing unauthorized charges, police reports, receipts, bills and letters refusing refunds for fraudulent charges.

Equifax Breach Website

The agreement assumes that only seven million consumers will take advantage of the credit monitoring protections, but Equifax could be on the hook for up to about $2 billion should all impacted consumers decide to enroll in credit monitoring.

The credit reporting agency is also reimbursing consumers for time spent dealing with fallout from the data breach, whether or not their data was explicitly misused, for up to 20 hours at a rate of $25 an hour. For the first 10 hours, consumers will simply have to self-certify that they spent time dealing with the breach; the next 10 hours require additional documentation.

One item in the settlement that consumer advocates have taken note of is the "fairly traceable" standard upon which reimbursement claims are tested. Requests for compensation related to the settlement must be fairly traceable to the Equifax breach, a capacious standard that could allow claims to be approved based on circumstantial evidence alone, according to Kenneth Canfield, who is on the team of lawyers representing plaintiffs in the class-action suit.

"If someone had an identity theft that occurred shortly after the breach, then that should be fairly traceable," Canfield told Newsweek. "It's as consumer-friendly a standard as we could make it."

Most consumers should have access to any documentation required to submit a claim. The administrator of the settlement is not looking for forensic evidence, Canfield said, but rather documents and other files that one would normally collect when alerted to identity theft or misuse of personal information.

Terrell McSweeny, a former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of the federal agencies with oversight of consumer data breaches, told Newsweek that "there is significant relief available within the settlement."

Ed Mierzwinski, a senior director at the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG, echoed this statement to Newsweek, saying that the settlement "was designed to have consumers win to the extent that they can" after a data breach of this scale.

Equifax Headquarters
Sign with logo and a portion of the main building are visible at the headquarters of credit bureau Equifax in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, September 20, 2017. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

One complicating factor in recovering the full $20,000 available to each consumer affected by the breach is that, unlike with other prominent data thefts, consumer information stolen from Equifax has not been systemically identified on the black market. This could make it less likely that personal data was misused in a way that could generate damages and, ultimately, a claim for reimbursement.

But Mierzwinski cautioned to any consumers who think they're out of the woods that hackers may be lying in wait until suspicion dies down.

"It's likely that the data was either misused or that the hacker is investing in it and waiting to use it," he said. "Some data does not lose value over time. Social Security numbers, for example, are like gold. If you put gold in your safe it might change a little in value, but it doesn't go down to zero. Credit card numbers, on the other hand, are like milk. Their value expires quickly."

Regardless of how long hackers may be waiting to resurface stolen data, the Equifax settlement affords a generous claims period to affected consumers. Seven years of identity restoration services are provided, for free, even if identity theft occurs outside of the claims period, which starts at six months for initial claims and then can extend for up to four years for additional losses.

Even with the deferential terms of the deal, "there's no way to know" if the extended claims period is long enough to accommodate future misuse of data, according to Canfield. This is true, in part, because of how hackers have refined their methods in recent years, laundering data in more sophisticated ways to prevent immediate detection.

But, in order to recruit as many consumers affected by the breach as possible and overcome the historically low participation rates usually incurred by class actions settlements, Canfield described to Newsweek an "unprecedented" public relations campaign that will be paid for by Equifax and conducted by a firm co-founded by President Barack Obama's reelection campaign manager.

"This is a very unusual, precedent-setting notice program," he said. "Historically, notice programs in class action suits involved sending letters or postcards. But what we are doing with Equifax has never been done before. There are going to be focus groups, there is going to be a national survey of members of the settlement class. This is going to be a very sophisticated program."