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More Protection for Mass. Consumers -- Although Risk Remains

January 16, 2019

Thanks to legislation recently signed by the governor, Massachusetts residents begin the new year with a greater sense of security, now that they have more control over the information in files held by the major credit-reporting agencies.

The bill prohibits the likes of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion from charging fees for freezing and unfreezing a person’s credit information. Previously, companies could charge up to $5 per request.

A freeze renders the report inaccessible to everyone except that particular consumer, who’s the only one with the authority to change that file’s status. In light of recent security breaches, it makes sense to shield sensitive information from potential identity thieves until it’s required for certain transactions, like applying for a home mortgage or other major purchases.

Other provisions prohibit businesses from obtaining a consumer’s credit report without obtaining written, verbal or electronic consent; require credit monitoring services to be available for three and a half years for some consumers affected by a breach; and improve notices and consumer information the companies are required to give.

The impetus for enhanced protection came courtesy of the lax security at Equifax, where in 2017 cyber thieves over a period of several months stole the personal information -- including names, Social Security numbers, addresses, driver’s licenses, and credit-card numbers -- of about 143 million Americans.

Equifax compounded the problem by not promptly disclosing the breach. That allowed hackers to go on an identity-theft field day, racking up a ton of debt before victims became aware of the fraudulent activities.

The significance of what happened at Equifax can’t be understated, since security experts at the time indicated the breach’s full impact might not be known for months, if not years.

According to Attorney General Maura Healey, that data breakdown put nearly three million Massachusetts residents’ credit data at risk; that’s almost half the state’s population.

Unfortunately, this legislation can undo what’s already been done, but it should give consumers added confidence, now that they have more control over that sensitive information.

Credit for staying the course to enactment belongs to the bill’s original Democratic sponsors, Lunenburg state Rep. Jennifer Benson and then-Andover state Sen. Barbara L’Italien.

“It puts consumers back in the driving seat of their own credit, and I think that’s really important,” Benson told the State House News Service back in November, when prospects for the bill’s passage gained momentum. “There are so many pieces of our identity that are out there in the public realm that we lose control over, and this is regaining some of that control.”

For Benson, this bill marked the successful conclusion of a multiyear quest; she began working on data-security legislation in response to the high-profile breach at Target in 2013.

The bill had languished since early August -- after formal sessions ended for 2018 -- while lawmakers studied amendments attached by Gov. Charlie Baker. Both House and Senate finally adopted a modified version of Baker’s modifications.

While no panacea, this legislation offers more protections than most other states enjoy, but consumers must realize, whether it’s credit information or account passwords and user names, your personal information remains at risk.

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