WASHINGTON —The catastrophic theft of 143 million consumers' personal data from national credit bureau Equifax could cause financial grief for years for homebuyers and mortgage applicants.
The odds are that some of your sensitive information was stolen — possibly your address, Social Security number, driver's license, credit card numbers — and could now be up for grabs to the highest bidders on a Dark Web site. Equifax and the other two national bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, keep files on approximately 220 million individuals, so roughly two-thirds of consumers are potentially at risk from the breach. Ironically, the so-called "credit invisibles" — the millions of Americans with little or no information in the bureaus’ files — may be the least affected by Equifax's security lapse.
Homebuyers and mortgage applicants, on the other hand, tend to have significant information on file at the bureaus and could run into complications soon or down the road.
Take this scenario: Say your Equifax file was looted but you've done little or nothing to detect fraudulent activity on one or more of your existing credit accounts. You sign a contract to buy a house and apply for a mortgage. The lender pulls your credit and confronts you with the shocking news: Your FICO credit score is too low for you to qualify for the loan because you've been running up too much debt on one or more accounts. Your "utilization ratio" on your available credit is too high and that has depressed your score. Or there’s a newly established account on your files that has put you deep in debt, even though you had nothing to do with it.
Turns out financial thieves have been racking up thousands of dollars in debts at your expense and now — smack in the middle of a major lifetime investment — you’re stuck with having to get the file corrected, which takes time and can be a pain. In the meantime, what happens to your purchase contract? Will the sellers bear with you, essentially putting off the transaction indefinitely, and possibly blowing up their own plans to move into another house they're under contract to close on a specific date? It could all get really messy.
Another scenario: Say your lender already has approved you for a mortgage or a home equity loan. Before the scheduled closing, the loan officer does what has become standard practice in the mortgage industry in recent years — runs another credit check to make sure no new debts have been added since your application. But in the meantime, identity theft criminals have created a new account or run up charges on one or more of your credit cards, knocking your debt-to-income ratio out of sight.
At the very least, whatever rate locks you had could be blown as you scramble to get your files corrected. Or your entire loan transaction could be jeopardized if the process takes too long.
Terry W. Clemans, executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association, many of whose members provide the merged credit bureau reports used by mortgage companies to evaluate applicants, told me that given the extent of the data theft at Equifax, "there's bound to be a lot of damage" to all types of credit users, including those seeking to finance, buy and sell houses. He said the theft of drivers licenses is especially worrisome because, combined with the possession of names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other data, license numbers could help cyber thieves "create a more credible fake I.D." — credible enough to fool lenders into believing they are dealing with the real you.
Clemans said he would advise consumers to "lock down your files" with fraud alerts or credit file freezes. The latter can prevent criminals from creating new, fraudulent accounts in your name by denying access to your credit reports. The former signals potential creditors to take extra steps to verify identity before issuing new credit in your name.
The Federal Trade Commission, which along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, regulates the credit arena, offers defensive guidance at a special new website, www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2017/09/equifax-data-breach-what-do. The FTC also has helpful information on identify theft counter-measures at www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft. Another good site if you're thinking of doing a freeze is www.uspirg.org/resources/usp/protect-yourself-against-new-account-id-theft. You can also avail yourself of the free, three-bureau credit monitoring service being offered by Equifax at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. Most important first step: Check your three credit reports free at www.annualcreditreport.com and see whether anyone already has been tampering with your accounts.
Ken Harney's email address is email@example.com.