Equifax is not having a good month. A couple of weeks ago, the credit-checking agency belatedly admitted that it had been subject to a data breach, but downplayed the problem, saying it had affected fewer than 400,000 UK accounts. Now it has had to admit that a file containing 15.2 million UK records was also attacked in the incident, in yet another example of companies mishandling data breaches.
Equifax first suspected it had been hacked on 29 July, but didn’t publicly announce this until 7 September. Although the breach happened at the US arm, it has affected millions of UK customers because, due to a “process failure”, a file containing the details of British customers between 2011 and 2016 was stored on the US system.
The Financial Conduct Authority is now investigating the firm because of the “public interest” in the matter. This is highly unusual – the watchdog doesn’t normally comment on who it is investigating. The FCA’s main concern is likely to be that the delay in announcing the breach might have given criminals time to make use of the stolen data. The FCA’s investigation could lead to a fine for Equifax, or if it finds that the credit- checking agency was negligent, it could even withdraw its right to operate here.
Equifax is contacting 700,000 customers who it believes are at a higher risk of fraud because their personal data such as phone number, email address or password was stolen, but more than 14 million other customers may have had their names and dates of birth leaked.
Depending on how much of your information was stolen, Equifax is offering identity protection or “monitoring” services (which flag up unusual activity), provided by itself or third parties, for free. UK customers can call 0800-587 1584 for more information on this. On the right, we look at what to do to protect your information online.
How to protect yourself from cybercrime
Although you can’t guarantee that you’ll never fall victim to cybercrime, there are things you can do to protect yourself. We list a few below.
• If you’ve been an Equifax customer, it’s time to change your passwords. Given the company’s delay in informing customers of the problems, don’t wait to get a letter from them – change your passwords now.
• If your online accounts offer the option, activate two-step verification. This will send a code to your phone or email that you enter along with your password, and is designed to prevent a criminal with your password from being able to hack your account. Although this sounds time-consuming, you can set it up so that you only have to do two-step verification when you sign in from a new device.
• Try to keep a note of your online accounts and close down ones you don’t use. When you close an account, contact the company and ask them to delete your details from their databases. Under the Data Protection Act, you have the right to ask a company not to hold information about you, although they can argue to keep it under certain circumstances if they need the information for legal purposes or to protect your vital interests, for example.
• If you are the victim of identity theft, the first you may know of this is when you are rejected for credit, if your credit rating has been affected by criminal activity. Keep alert by regularly checking your credit report for suspicious activity. You can monitor your credit report via Experian, ClearScore or Equifax, although you may want to avoid the latter.
In the news this week…
• The average cost of a place in a care home has almost doubled over the past 20 years, says Sam Meadows in The Sunday Telegraph, and is now close to £1,000 a week. Care-home operators have been falling into financial difficulty, local-authority budgets have been tightening, and supply is short.
This “cruel combination” means private payers – those who get no assistance with fees – are “especially hard hit”. The average weekly fee for residential care with nursing is now £845, compared with £445 back in 1998, according to healthcare researcher LangBuisson. The cost of residential care without nursing has risen from £322 to £605 over the same period.
The increase is particularly hurting those who have to pay the whole fee without state assistance, as the gap between what the state pays and what private individuals pay is widening. The amount paid by local authorities is “artificially low”, meaning care-home providers facing steep increases in costs from the introduction of the national living wage, among other factors, are forced to pass on the costs.
• Complicated family set-ups are being blamed for a surge in the number of people contesting family trusts. The number of disputes coming before the High Court rose by 43% last year. “Lawyers say that families are often more fragmented, with divorce and remarriage routine,” reports the Financial Times.
This, alongside a “greater willingness among individuals to take disputes to court,” is contributing to the rise. Trusts are often used to ensure that assets are split according to the exact wishes of the person who set it up. These set-ups can “provide fertile ground for disputes… particularly where several family members are involved”.
• The wealthy have embraced equity-release schemes to fund living inheritances and avoid death duties, says The Daily Telegraph. The proportion of £500,000-plus properties being used for equity release has trebled since 2012. In part this can be explained by rising house prices, but the growth in the value of the average property used to withdraw cash has “far outstripped” house price rises – suggesting equity release is going “upmarket”.