The head of the state Office of Consumer Protection urged Montanans on Friday to take full advantage of the $300 million settlement Equifax will pay affected consumers in the United States for a 2017 data breach.
"People need to focus on it," said Mark Mattioli, consumer protection chief in the Montana Department of Justice. "Part of the settlement involves free credit monitoring for 10 years, which is huge."
Describing the breach as "one of the largest ever to threaten Americans' private information," the Associated Press noted the lapse exposed critical and private personal data, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, driver's license numbers, and even passport data.
An estimated 380,441 Montanans were affected, or roughly half the adult population of the state, according to the state Department of Justice. All told, the exposure compromised the information of 147 million people in the U.S.
"If people spent time finding out if their identity had been stolen or actually addressing an identity theft issue, they're allowed to make a claim for several hours of their time at $25 an hour," Mattioli said.
A consumer may claim as much as $20,000, according to the AP. As part of the settlement reached with Montana, other states and federal agencies, Equifax also must provide free identity theft restoration and reimbursements for credit monitoring services. (See related box.)
When news of the breach first came to light, Mattioli said the Office of Consumer Protection received a deluge of calls, including from people who did not trust the security of the site of the company that had just mishandled data. The settlement was announced this week, but he said consumers have been largely quiet.
"We've all been shocked. We were preparing ourselves for significant call volume because it was off the charts when the breach happened," Mattioli said.
The calm may mean consumers have been satisfied with the response from Equifax and its work on administering claims, Mattioli said. Nonetheless, he said anytime someone suspects their personal information has been compromised or inappropriately disseminated, they should feel free to call the Office of Consumer Protection at 800-481-6896 or 406-444-4500.
In this case, he said the state likely will be referring people directly to Equifax, but if they have concerns, he encouraged them to contact the office. In a statement earlier this week, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox also encouraged Montanans to reach out to his office.
"My consumer protection team stands ready to assist Montanans who may have questions about the breach and how to recover from or prevent identity theft," Fox said in the statement.
When people used to balance their checkbooks by hand, it may have been easier to monitor financial transactions, Mattioli said. He said transactions in the digital age can be "out of sight, out of mind," and he urged vigilance.
"The transactions are so easy to engage in. People need to be really proactive to monitor their transactions (and) read their statements," he said.
With so much data online and available, he noted the threat of identity theft is significant. As such, he said people should protect their personal information and especially refrain from sharing Social Security numbers with anyone who isn't known and trusted.
In an extreme situation, some people may need to evaluate freezing their credit, said Jessica Burson, with Homeword in Missoula. Homeword has a mission to support sustainable communities.
"If someone has a concern about their credit, regardless of whether it's impacted by this breach or not, we have all those services available for free," Burson said.
The nonprofit offers free financial education courses and helps people monitor their credit with its mission to help people purchase or rent homes. Burson said the free support includes a financial fitness class and also one-on-one financial counseling.
"We want people to be really informed consumers and confidently make wise personal financial decisions," Burson said.