Barely a day seems to pass without some new development in the Equifax scandal, which began with the company's belated admission two weeks ago that cyberthieves may have made off with credit-scoring profiles of 143 million people, including their Social Security numbers.
But rather than chase the Equifax development du jour, let's step back and look at what I think is the real — and real simple — lesson that we can take from the Equi-fiasco.
It's this. When we let computers and computerized formulas known as algorithms run the show with little or no human intervention, a lot of bad stuff can happen to people without them realizing it until something bites them on a vulnerable part of their anatomy.
The credit scoring system consists of computers from on high influencing our lives via algorithms — without bothering to tell us what's going on. This strikes me as what my friend Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal called "a weapon of math destruction" — you can groan now — in a playful financial dictionary he published in 2015.
I hadn't paid much attention to credit-scoring until Equifax erupted. But when I focused on it, it became clear to me that the system, featuring Equifax, Experian and TransUnion as its Big Three, is more than a little outrageous.
The troika's computers receive information about us from who knows where and send it to outfits that we may or may not have given permission to check us out. Using their algorithms and data that might or might not be accurate, the Big Three assign credit scores to us. If there's a mistake somewhere, which has been known to happen, the victim has to expend time and effort to figure out what's wrong, and then convince the credit raters that they messed up.
And if you want to protect yourself from problems that these firms may cause you, you've got to fork over fees to them. The Big Three get paid going and coming. When they mess up, they apologize — but you bear the bulk of the risk and the cost.
For example, if you're concerned that you'll be victimized by the Equifax hack, you can have Equifax freeze your account. After getting some bad PR, Equifax finally agreed not to charge you the $10 or so — the cost varies by state — for the first frozen year. Big whoop.
But if you're really concerned, you also have to buy protection from Experian and TransUnion, which haven't waived their fees. And you have to deal with all sorts of paperwork. If your household consists of two adults, like mine does, each of you has to do this.
In other words, you, rather than Equifax, have to pay most of the cost to protect yourself from problems Equifax may have caused you.
And it gets better — or worse, depending on your point of view. If after freezing your accounts, you do something that requires you to let a credit card issuer or a potential employer or some other entity have access to your credit information, you have to pay to have your accounts unfrozen. Then you have to freeze them again.
To me, this whole thing is symptomatic of systems that elevate machines over people. It's symbolized by employers using algorithms to decide which job applicants to look at and by companies that treat people like machines by cramming them together as close as possible, without caring that most people function far more effectively when they have a little space and a little quiet.
It may be a mistake, but I can't bring myself to freeze my wife's and my credit accounts, then have to periodically unfreeze them. We've dealt with a number of mistake-generated problems over the years — sometimes it was our mistake, sometimes an institution's — but we've managed to get past them by dealing with human beings whom we interested in helping us.
For years, I've tried to forestall potential problems from computerized systems run amok by checking my banking, credit card and investment accounts almost daily, in order to catch problems early. I also try to cultivate relationships with actual living people, both because it's the right thing to do and because that way, they're far more likely to help us if we run into problems.
I expect the Equifax scandal to go on for a while, with hearings in Washington and possibly elsewhere, lawsuits, and revelations of juicy emails and texts. Despite this, however, I suspect that the credit-rating industry's "weapons of math destruction" will remain pretty much in place. And that it will remain our job to counter them by spending time (and possibly money) to take care of ourselves. It was ever thus.