If Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets every dollar that he’s seeking from Equifax, he could repeal the $1.3 billion in property tax increases he’s already imposed for police, fire and teacher pensions and fund the city’s contributions well into the future.
What’s more likely, however, is that Emanuel will gain political capital by filing one of many lawsuits triggered by the company’s massive data breach–and that whatever money the city gets will be negligible.
“The goal is not to somehow enrich us, but actually protect consumers. … It affects your ability to get a car loan, a student loan, a home loan,” Emanuel said Thursday.
“We’re using the powers that exist on the books … to hold this company’s feet to the fire and more importantly, bring justice to consumers whose private information has been violated.”
The Circuit Court suit, first reported by Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, seeks up to $10,000 in daily penalties for every single Chicagoan exposed to identity theft because of the company’s failure to protect their “incredibly sensitive personal data” and promptly inform them when that information was compromised.
With 5.4 million Illinois victims, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) projected up to a million Chicago victims. He called it, potentially, the “largest consumer fraud in American history.”
That would literally mean $10 billion in daily penalties since March 7 — if there was even a chance of collecting that much from a company under siege — with the meter still running because Equifax has yet to notify individual Chicago consumers.
Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel said the lawsuit seeks a “combination of penalties that would go to the city, but also restitution for the victims.” He did not say how the spoils — if there are any — would be divided.
Emanuel credited Burke with lighting the fire that turned the city’s response to the Equifax breach from “de-caffeinated to caffeinated.”
Still, Burke urged the mayor to go further — by seeking a temporary restraining order to stop what he called the “$90 million golden parachute” that Equifax CEO Richard Smith is about to get on his way out the door.
Smith resigned earlier this week in the unrelenting furor over a data breach that exposed sensitive personal information of as many as 143 million Americans.
“That kind of reward for misconduct can be enjoined,” Burke said.
The consumer fraud and protection ordinance that Equifax is accused of violating was approved in 2002. But, Emanuel noted that the penalties were increased dramatically in 2012 — from $500-a-day to $10,000 — to “level the playing field” for consumer fraud cases just like this.
According to Siskel, the clock on the daily penalties started in early March — and it’s still ticking.
From “at least March 7 until July 30,” Equifax left their data “vulnerable to attack from hackers … without taking readily available steps to ensure that systems protecting data” were in place, the corporation counsel said.
And from “at least July 30 through Sept. 7,” the company failed to notify consumers whose data was breached so they could take steps to protect themselves.
“Chicago residents clearly have already suffered significant and lasting harm as a result of the data breach and such harm is likely to continue to worsen over time,” the lawsuit states.
Even after knowing about the breach, Equifax “marketed a product” that allowed victims to sign up for identity theft protection without disclosing that, if they agreed, they would be waiving their right to pursue legal claims against the company and that the free service would “automatically shift to a fee-based service after one year,” Siskel said.
“Every day counts. Every day during that more than five-month time period is a day when residents of Chicago could have taken steps to … protect their identity from identity theft. Could have engaged in vigilant monitoring of their credit accounts, could have taken basic measures to protect their financial information and their identity from being stolen,” Siskel said.
“But because Equifax did not take those basic steps required under the city’s ordinance, they left Chicago residents vulnerable.”
The class-action lawsuit puts Emanuel in a legal arena normally reserved for retiring Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. And certainly the city will have to get in line behind scores of others demanding their pound of flesh from Equifax.
But by portraying himself as a champion for Chicago consumers, Emanuel wins politically, even if the city loses.
Madigan, who has filed a lawsuit seeking federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department, responded to the mayor’s lawsuit against Equifax by saying she is “leading a multi-state group” investigating the company that has already made “numerous demands” on behalf of impacted consumers.
“We also continue to investigate how the breach occurred and the timing of its public announcement of the breach. We expect to pursue long-term improvements to Equifax’s data security and penalties to deter future lax security,” Madigan’s spokesperson Maura Possley wrote in an email.