Equifax made data security a sales pitch

Equifax’s records on any given individual, scattered throughout dozens of databases, typically stretch across hundreds or thousands of pages.

Equifax’s chief executive had a simple strategy when he joined more than a decade ago: Gather as much personal data as possible and find new ways to sell it.

The company was making good money compiling credit reports on Americans. But Wall Street wanted stronger growth.

The chief executive, Richard F. Smith, delivered, releasing dozens of new products each year and doubling revenue. The company built algorithms and started scrubbing social media to assess consumers. In a big data-collection coup, Equifax persuaded more than 7,000 employers to hand over salary details for an income-verification system that now encompasses nearly half of U.S. workers.

As part of its pitch to clients, the company promised to safeguard information. It even sold products to help companies hit by cyberattacks protect their customers.

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“Data breaches are on the rise. Be prepared,” the company said in one pitch. “You’ll feel safer with Equifax.”

But this strategy means that Equifax is entrenched in consumers’ financial lives whether they like it or not — or even know it. Equifax’s approach amplified the consequences of the breach, reported this month, that exposed the personal information for up to 143 million people.

Ordinary people are not Equifax’s customers. They are the company’s product. The “Big Three” credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, collect 4.5 billion pieces of data each month to feed into their credit reports.

From birth to death, the record grows. Decades’ worth of addresses and identifying information, including driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers. Utility accounts like telephone and cable subscriptions. Criminal records, medical debt, as well as rental and eviction histories.

Equifax’s records on any given individual, scattered throughout dozens of databases, typically stretch across hundreds or thousands of pages.

Equifax now faces a consumer backlash over its response to the hacking attack. The anger has been intensified by the actions of three senior executives who sold shares worth $1.8 million in the days after the breach was discovered. The stock, which had tripled in the last five years, is down 30 percent since the attack. Equifax said the executives were…

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