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Equifax data breach could have long-reaching effects for borrowers

Patrick Varine
| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 9:42 p.m.
A home is under construction in Lorien Fields, one of several housing projects in development in Penn Township. Prospective home buyers affected by the Equifax data breach could have trouble closing the deal if something fraudulent shows up on their credit report.
Jacob Tierney | Tribune-Review
A home is under construction in Lorien Fields, one of several housing projects in development in Penn Township. Prospective home buyers affected by the Equifax data breach could have trouble closing the deal if something fraudulent shows up on their credit report.

Updated 2 hours ago

Ryin Gaines and his family know all too well what can happen if your identity is stolen.

“My wife had to jump through hoops for over a decade to settle all of the damage that was caused,” said Gaines, 35, of Pittsburgh.

So when he discovered that he was among the 143 million people affected by the Equifax data breach, he jumped to action, slapping a freeze on his credit.

The Sept. 7 announcement of the hack and data breach potentially affects nearly half of U.S. adults, has sent Equifax's corporate stock into a freefall, spurred a Federal Trade Commission investigation, resulted in more than 20 class-action lawsuits and could prevent affected consumers from doing something as simple as financing the new Apple iPhone.

Experts are warning that Americans for years to come could see new credit accounts popping up in their names.

Kelly Keenan of Murrysville entered her information into Equifax's website and discovered that she also was among those likely affected.

“I had been planning to replace a truck we have but absolutely will not until Equifax fixes this error,” she said.

Stories such as Gaines' and Keenan's are playing out across the country.

Christine Stawski, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in North Huntingdon, said the breach is unfortunate but not unexpected.

“All of our information is valuable, and it's a target,” Stawski said.

While she does not have any current prospective homebuyers affected by the breach, Stawski said she can see it becoming a large problem in the realty market.

“A lender can pull your credit up to the time of closing,” she said. “And if a lender sees that new credit has been opened, they can stop the closing. So that's a huge impact.”

Norm Montgomery, executive vice president at First Commonwealth Bank, which has branches throughout Pennsylvania and central and eastern Ohio, said that is a very real possibility.

“Where the impact would come is if a fraudster used (someone's) data to open phony accounts,” Montgomery said. “At that point, it would be an identity theft, and they'd have to work through the remediation efforts: contacting the credit agency, putting fraud alerts on their credit. ... There would definitely be some additional questions that would have to be sorted out between the customer and the financial institution” before a purchase could be completed.

People whose information has been exposed through the breach have been told one option is to freeze their credit.

But that already has become an issue for one major cellular carrier. Citizens Financial Group, which runs the financing program for Apple and its iPhones, told the Associated Press that any new or existing customers who have credit freezes on their information will be declined financing.

That means if a customer whose data has been compromised can't pay the full cost of a new phone up front — Apple is on the verge of releasing several new phones — they likely won't be able to buy unless they remove the credit freeze.

Gaines planned to take up Equifax on its offer of a free year of credit monitoring. But after finding out that accepting the offer would preclude him from joining one of more than 20 class-action suits already filed against Equifax in the wake of the breach (see update below), he decided against it.

Gaines has been in touch with five law firms that have filed class-action suits. For him, it's not about money.

“Unfortunately, in America, it seems that litigation is the only way to force a change in behavior with some of the big corporations. So I wanted to get on board and do my part immediately,” he said. “Given the way we rely on credit in this country, the companies who task themselves with determining creditworthiness need to be much more careful with our data.”

UPDATE (Sept. 19, 2017, 12:40 p.m.): Initially, the terms of use for Equifax's credit monitoring service, TrustedID, stated that participants forfeited the right to legal action against the company. According to Web fact checking site, Equifax has sought to clarify that the clause does not apply to the data breach incident.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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