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That $125 payment from Equifax? You shouldn't count on it

Are you eligible for Equifax payout funds?
  • The 148 million consumers impacted by the Equifax date breach can request a $125 cash payment to help compensate for their privacy headaches.
  • But that $125 offer only covers consumers who either already have credit monitoring and can prove they'll continue with the service for the next six months.
  • The settlement warns that if enough consumers request the $125 and that the total reaches $31 million in outlays, the per-person cash award will be reduced.
  • Consumers would be wiser to pick the free credit monitoring for up to 10 years, the Federal Trade Commission said on Wednesday.

With the Equifax settlement reached this week, consumers have the chance to receive $125 in cash, prompting even Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to urge victims to "get your check from Equifax!" But the reality may not be as remunerative as she and others believe.

The $125 cash payment comes with several major strings attached. For one, it's only available to people who already have credit-monitoring services, which typically cost between $10 to $30 a month. On top of that, you'll have to provide proof you will continue to use the service for the next six months. 

But the biggest gotcha might be a small detail that's been overlooked by many consumers eager to bank an extra $125: The pool of money to fund the payments is topped at $31 million. If the claims exceed that amount, the per person payout "will be lowered and distributed on a proportional basis," the settlement site's FAQs notes.

The Federal Trade Commission added its two cents on Wednesday, pointing out that it's seen an "overwhelming" interest in the settlement and pointing out that it could result in a lower payout than the $125 many are expecting. Its advice: pick the free credit monitoring offered by the settlement instead of the payout.

"A large number of claims for cash instead of credit monitoring means only one thing: each person who takes the money option will wind up only getting a small amount of money," Robert Schoshinski, the FTC's assistant director, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, said in a Wednesday blog post

21 cents per person

If more than 248,000 people make claims on the $31 million pot of money, the per person payout will be less than $125. If all 148 million victims claimed the award, the payout would be lowered to 21 cents per person.

"I would caution folks it's not $125 free money," said Charity Lacey, vice president of communications at the Identity Theft Resource Center. "You have to prove you have credit monitoring in place and it will be active for the next 6 months."

Plus, she added, "If you don't provide the proof, you may not get the $125. Or you may get a portion of it," depending on how many people claim. 

Credit monitoring: Worth it?

Consumers impacted by the data breach may receive up to 10 years of free monitoring of their credit reports. You can also sign up for at least four years of monitoring services provided by Experian at no cost. 

Consumers who don't already have credit monitoring services -- which in some cases are provided to consumers through their insurance or employers -- may want to consider this option rather than claiming the $125 that may or may not arrive, Lacey noted. Keeping a close eye on your accounts can help forestall identity theft and catch problems before they grow into costly hassles, which may be more valuable in the long-term than up to $125 in immediate cash.

The credit monitoring "is worth a lot more – the market value would be hundreds of dollars a year," Schoshinski of the FTC wrote in his blog post. "If you haven't submitted your claim yet, think about opting for the free credit monitoring instead."

Equifax to pay up to $700 million for 2017 data breach

But a free option that will help secure your data and your identity is to place a credit freeze at the major credit bureaus, noted Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

"A credit freeze stops thieves from opening new accounts in your name," Velasquez said. "I think there is still this misconception that it's a very long and arduous process and that it's difficult to navigate."

The credit bureaus have made it an easier process, she added, noting that consumers report it requires about an hour to set up freezes at all three bureaus. 

Here are the links to where you can freeze your credit at the three credit-reporting agencies:

Velasquez also recommends parents set up credit freezes for their children, which requires extra documentation, such as verification that you are the child's parent or guardian, that must be mailed to each of the credit bureaus. 

"Kids' Social Security numbers aren't gold -- they are diamond. They are so valuable to fraudsters," she said. "It's one more thing that we have to care of on behalf of our children."

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