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Senate gives consumers free credit freezes — but also gifts for Equifax

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

On Wednesday evening, the Senate passed a bill that would roll back some banking regulations. Indirectly, the bill addresses Equifax’s historic data breach in which Social Security numbers and other personal data of 150 million people were exposed — a number that comprises well over half the U.S.’s adult population.

Though Sens. Mark Warner (D-Virg.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had put forth a bill in January that would hold credit reporting agencies responsible for breaches, it did not progress and Congress had failed to issue a legislative response to the Equifax breach.

In a move meant to benefit consumers, the new Senate bill, which was introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), includes free credit freezes for consumers — stripping the credit bureaus like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion of a moneymaker. Credit freezes typically cost between $5 and $15 each. In addition, veterans are to be given free credit monitoring.

While the free freezes are good for consumers the Senate bill also stands to give credit reporting companies a break that could be worth far more than the cost of providing these services. The legislation also stipulates that people in the military and veterans (who are being given free monitoring) do not have the ability to sue the agencies.

Politico noted that the bill contains another bit in Equifax’s favor: The bill would essentially open a new line of business for the three major credit reporting agencies, allowing their joint entity VantageScore to issue credit scores for mortgage applicants with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Currently, Fair Isaac’s FICO score is the sole provider of credit scores to determine a mortgage borrower’s creditworthiness. The bill would expand competition for credit scores, but critics decry Equifax’s involvement.

With the anti-liability provisions and the window into the mortgage business, Equifax’s win shows the lobbying power the company still has, something that has angered consumer advocate groups. Public Citizen’s Financial Policy Advocate Bartlett Naylor called for Congress to “do more to protect consumers” in a press release.

FILE – In this March 6, 2018, file photo, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, joined by, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, talks to reporters as the Senate moves closer to passing legislation to roll back some of the safeguards Congress put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, at the Capitol in Washington. Burrowed within new Senate legislation to roll back restraints on banks is a break from data reporting requirements for lenders making certain levels of mortgage loans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The trade group for credit-reporting agencies, the Consumer Data Industry Association, had pushed hard for liability limitations and for federal law to overrule states’ own rules. “We believe data breach legislation should be both preemptive of state law and be limited to administrative enforcement,” the group’s president told Congress earlier this month.

In a statement to Yahoo Finance Equifax didn’t comment on the move to limit the bureaus’ liability, but said it “shares the sponsor’s goal of helping consumers gain access to credit and having more control over their personal credit data. Equifax supports a federal security freeze statute that simplifies the process for consumers. Security freezes are one of the many tools available which enable consumers to better protect themselves against potential identity theft.”

The bill is considered likely to pass the House, and the Trump administration supports the bill as is.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: FinanceTips[at]oath[.com].

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