Over the last 10 days, media coverage of the massive cyberattack against Equifax has uncovered a maddening spectacle of apparent negligence and incompetence at every step of the way. With each new detail—from the company’s delayed response to the incident to the recent resignation of two top-level executives hoping to escape the fallout—the chorus of lawmakers and consumer-rights groups demanding accountability gets louder and louder.
But Equifax’s shoddy security protocols and botched handling of sensitive private data probably haven’t come as much of a surprise to at least one group of Americans: They are the tens of thousands of consumers who have already lodged complaints against the company via the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A search of the CFPB’s database reveals more than 57,000 complaints about Equifax dating back to 2012, when the database was first put online. That’s an average of about 31 a day.
As a sector, “credit reporting” is one of the most common reasons consumers turn to the CFPB for help. According to the bureau’s most recently published monthly complaint report, the sector ranked third among the top reasons people file complaints. Only “debt collection” and “mortgage” ranked higher.
And Equifax has the dubious distinction of being the worst of the worst. Over the last five years, the company has attracted more complaints than either of its two major rivals, though not substantially more. Experian had about 54,000 complaints against it while TransUnion had 49,000, according to a search I conducted on Sunday.
The sheer volume of complaints against all three companies are a reminder of why the credit-reporting industry remains so broadly reviled among American consumers. Read together, the complaints weave a narrative of collective hostility and resentment toward the massive entities who collect, store, and profit from our personal data but show little remorse or sympathy when that data is incorrect or misused.
Big Data, Bad Data
In Equifax’s case, more than two thirds of the complaints are because of alleged incorrect information on a credit report. Consumers say they commonly find their reports contain information that is incomplete, outdated, doesn’t belong to them, or is just plain wrong. Many of those who complain say they are victims of fraud or identity theft, and some accuse Equifax of reinserting bad information even after it was previously deleted.
Another frequent reason consumers complain is because they believe their reports were improperly shared with other parties–a charge that feels less surprising in light of the recent hack.
Equifax did not respond to a request for comment. Worth noting is that the vast majority of complaints are marked as “closed with explanation.” According to the CFPB, that means the company took some steps to offer an explanation that was tailored to the specific complaint. Those explanations may or may not meet the consumer’s desired resolution.
The CFPB was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which also authorized the bureau to make certain information about financial products and services public. The first online complaint database was launched in June 2012 for credit cards, and the database has since been expanded.
Records show complaints against Equifax have increased every year since the database went live, with almost 16,000 complaints in 2016 alone. This year should easily surpass that number.
Personal information in the CFPB’s complaint database is anonymized, and the bureau does not verify all the facts in each complaint, but it does contact companies for responses before it publishes them online. The database covers a broad range of financial products and services.
Each complaint also includes an optional field for “consumer narratives” that let people tell the specifics of their situation. It’s here that the widespread frustration with Equifax and its competitors comes into focus, with customers often regaling their dealings with the firms in grueling detail. “It’s been well over a year now, and I’m still battling with Equifax to review my statements and remove the remaining collection accounts,” reads one typical complaint.
The Equifax hack is being called one of the most serious in American history, exposing the personal information—including birth dates, addresses, and Social Security numbers—of more than 143 million U.S. consumers.
With Congress now getting involved, the extent to which lawmakers should excuse its past transgressions will likely become a topic of debate in the near future. But as Equifax’s frayed relationship with American consumers already shows, excuses won’t get you a clean slate.