The recently announced Equifax hack and breach of private information has spurred some lawmakers to call for more financial and privacy protections for the military community.
And some consumer groups are highlighting the incident as an example of the need for reforms that would expand the rights of those in that community — and all consumers — to sue financial institutions.
Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., have written Equifax officials requesting details on specific actions the credit reporting agency will take to ensure service members “are not victimized any further” by the hackers who stole personal information such as Social Security numbers, dates of birth and home addresses. The senators asked for a response by Oct. 6.
Equifax did not immediately respond to Military Times’ questions.
The data breach also highlights the importance of the need to allow service members and consumers in general to join in class action lawsuits against financial institutions, said representatives of some consumer groups who spoke during a Sept. 20 briefing on Capitol Hill. The increased use of forced arbitration clauses, which often appear in the fine print of agreements for credit cards, bank accounts, auto loans and other financial products, has hampered the ability of consumers to sue financial institutions and limited the amount of relief, the advocates said.
Equifax initially required potential victims who signed up for the Equifax resources to agree to arbitration, but the company has since changed that policy.
“Asking people to individually arbitrate the same claim 143 million times is not only impractical, it’s also unconscionable, considering statistics that prove when a consumer goes to arbitration against a massive company, when an arbitrator is chosen by that company, consumers almost always lose,” said John McElligott, an Army reservist and deputy executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service. He is co-chair of the Guard and Reserve committee of The Military Coalition, an organization made up of of 32 military advocacy groups.
“Because service members can’t shoulder the burden of bringing their claim alone, being able to enforce their right through class action is essential,” he said.
These arbitration clauses typically state that either the company or the consumer can require that disputes between them are resolved by privately appointed individuals, called arbitrators, except for individual cases brought in small claims courts, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In effect, this blocks class-action lawsuits, which are brought by a group of consumers who can sue on behalf of others who are affected by the company’s practices.
A new CFPB rule went into effect Sept. 18 that bans financial companies from using forced arbitration clauses, even though the House voted to repeal the rule in July, before its implementation. The White House backed the House vote in a statement, saying the rule would lead to more “frivilous class-action lawsuits,” drive up financial institutions‘ legal costs and “harm consumers by denying them the full benefits and efficiencies of arbitration.”
The Senate has yet to take up the subject.
“The CFPB’s arbitration rule puts control back into the hands of service members by prohibiting class action waivers in financial contracts,” McElligott said.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Military Lending Act provide a number of financial protections for service members, “but there are gaps, and within those gaps, some of these products can be sold to service men and women and they become victimized,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., at the briefing.
BROADER REQUIREMENTS SOUGHT
While the Military Lending Act prohibits forced arbitration clauses, it doesn’t cover every financial issue, said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. That law applies only to active-duty members, not to military retirees or veterans. It doesn’t cover so-called “purchase money loans,” such as mortgages or vehicle loans, and it doesn’t cover credit reporting agencies, bank accounts or debt collectors.
“The Military Lending Act is important, but it’s a much narrower slice. That’s why service members and the rest of us need the broad protection of the CFPB rule,” Saunders said.
These arbitration clauses are “particularly abusive when enforced against service members who may not be able to individually challenge illegal or unfair practices,” McElligott said. “Hiring a lawyer costs a lot of money, often too much for the service member to bear, especially junior enlisted. …
“If a service member is scammed or defrauded, he or she should have every right to hold that institution accountable.”
McElligott said The Military Coalition is not against all arbitration but is opposed to forced arbitration.
New Mexico resident Tracy Kilgore, the wife of a retired Coast Guard master chief, described her ordeal as one of the 3.5 million victims of the Wells Fargo fake account scandal, where employees were accused of setting up fake accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses.
She didn’t have a Wells Fargo account, but she and the newly elected president/regent of their local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution went to a Wells Fargo branch to make some administrative changes in their DAR account.
Three weeks later, she got a rejection letter from Wells Fargo for a personal credit card she had never applied for. It took three months to get the matter straightened out and removed from her credit report, she said.
Kilgore is now part of a class-action lawsuit against Wells Fargo, but the company has filed a motion in court to force her and other consumers into arbitration, she said.
“I can’t believe they did that to their own customers, then they did it to a non-customer,” she said.