If you’re upset about the Equifax data breach and want to get in on a class-action lawsuit against the company, you don’t have to do anything at this point. You—along with nearly 148 million others affected by the breach—would automatically be part of any class-action lawsuit, unless you opt out and sue on your own.
Equifax, a credit reporting company that collects personal data about consumers, says its system was hacked between mid May and the end of July, although it didn’t let the public know about the breach until September 7. Thieves made away with consumers’ Social Security numbers, birthdates and other information, leaving millions vulnerable to identity theft for the rest of their lives. Equifax offered free credit monitoring for a year, and after a public outcry, it agreed to waive a requirement that anyone using the service must settle disputes through arbitration.
That paved the way for consumers to sue, and within weeks, more than 240 lawsuits seeking class-action status were filed against Equifax. The cases have been consolidated into one case that will be heard by a court in Atlanta, where the company is based. A judge in Atlanta has yet to certify the case as a class action. If and when that happens, you’ll likely get a notice that you are part of the class, says Kevin Sharp, whose law firm, Sanford Heisler Sharp, sued Equifax. Most class actions are settled. If that happens, you’ll get a chance to object to the settlement or opt out. (Equifax was recently in the news again, when Reuters reported that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has retreated from a full investigation into the breach.)
Class actions were designed for cases such as this, in which the number of plaintiffs is large and the complaints similar, says Josh King, chief legal officer at Avvo, an online legal resource for consumers. “It’s oftentimes used where any individual claims might not be significant enough to merit bringing a lawsuit individually,” he says.
If you take part in an Equifax class-action lawsuit, there’s little or nothing you need to do, and you won’t pay the legal fees of lawyers because their fees will come out of any settlement. (A July study by the CFPB found that, on average, lawyers’ fees and expenses came to about 18% of settlements in consumer finance class-action lawsuits over five years.)
Going it alone. Hiring your own lawyer to represent you or filing a complaint yourself in small-claims court are options. One reason to hire your own lawyer is if your stolen Equifax information has been used by criminals and your damages are significant enough to make paying legal fees worthwhile. By going to small-claims court, you don’t need to hire a lawyer and can present your case to the judge yourself. The maximum amount of your claim will be limited, based on your state; limits range from $2,500 to $25,000.
But consumers will generally be better off sticking with the class action. “It’s extremely difficult to pursue a case on your own unless you have a lot of money at stake and the ability to prove that the company harmed you. The advantage of class actions is that you don’t have to do anything, and you have the potential of recovering even small dollar claims,” says Lauren Saunders, of the National Consumer Law Center.
Class actions can go on for years. Meanwhile, take steps to protect your information from crooks, such as by freezing your credit reports (see The Equifax Data Breach: What You Should Do).
And beware of scams. “If you are contacted by someone claiming to be an attorney or some kind of facilitator of these suits and they’re seeking money, it’s a scam,” Sharp says.