It's hard to miss the irony. Last Thursday, on the same day Equifax announced its massive data breach, Congress held a hearing on a bill that would roll back regulations on the nation's credit bureaus.
Republican members of the House are currently considering six proposals as part of their Legislative Proposals for a More Efficient Federal Financial Regulatory Regime. The FCRA Liability Harmonization Act (H.R. 2359) would reduce the penalties for credit bureaus when they harm consumers.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia), would cap damage awards in class action lawsuits at $500,000 filed under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and eliminate punitive damages entirely. A press release announcing the bill said it's designed to "curb abuses in the court system" and bring consistency to our nation's consumer financial protection laws.
"I have seen how a small technical error, turned into a lawsuit, can affect everyone in a business, including employees, customers, and vendors. Unfortunately, suits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act have skyrocketed in recent years while leaving consumers inappropriately compensated," Rep. Loudermilk said in a statement.
Reduced Accountability for Credit Bureaus
Consumer advocates see it quite differently. They believe the bill — by limiting damage awards and eliminating punitive awards, no matter how egregious the violation — would dramatically reduce accountability for credit bureaus and other companies that handle our most sensitive personal information.
"Once again, anti-consumer forces are working overtime to deprive ordinary Americans of rights and protections that were hard fought and hard won," said Chi Chi Wu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. "These bills not only hurt consumers, they ultimately have a negative impact on the marketplace by, for example, removing incentives for credit bureaus to ensure accurate information in credit reports."
In light of the Equifax breach, Wu said she is "really troubled" by the idea that Congress would severely cut back on remedies under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Now is not the time to roll back consumer protections, she told NBC News.
Class action damages would be capped at $500,000, no matter how extensive the losses — even if there were 143 million people in that lawsuit — the number of potential victims in the Equifax breach.
This would "dramatically reduce accountability for credit bureaus and other companies, including when they wrongfully label innocent consumers as deadbeats, criminals or terrorists," Wu said in her Congressional testimony before the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit last week.
Various business groups, including the American Bankers Association, Credit Union National Association, Consumer Data Industry and the Financial Services Roundtable support H.R. 2359.
The risk of uncapped liability places companies "in the tenuous position of having to settle even questionable claims or risking trials in which they would face potentially crippling statutory damage awards in addition to excessive punitive damages," the U.S. Chamber wrote in its letter of support. "In many circumstances, these large dollar cases are fueled by aggressive trial lawyers whose fees are increased by this unfair damages regime."
In a blog post criticizing the GOP leadership of the House Financial Services Committee for considering these regulatory changes, Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. PIRG, noted that the big three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) are in the top five most-complained-about companies to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"Equifax has more complaints than Wells Fargo!" he wrote.
He also noted that a 2013 report by the Federal Trade Commission found that five percent of all consumers had errors on one of their credit reports that could cause them to pay more for products such as auto loans and insurance.
Mierzwinski called on Congress to protect consumers by passing "real reform legislation," such as the Comprehensive Consumer Reporting Act, that promises to make the American credit reporting system fairer, more accurate, and less confusing for consumers.