Why the Equifax hack has small business owners worried

Equifax CEO is out after data breach
Equifax CEO is out after data breach

Small business owners say they're worried the Equifax hack could hurt both their personal finances and their businesses.

For many, their ability to access credit needed to pay employees or order inventory is closely tied to their personal credit score.

"The Equifax breach of my personal information puts our entire business at risk," said Dawn Lea Chalmers, owner of the boutique clothing store Kademi in Mississippi.

She is joining a lawsuit filed against Equifax, asking to be reimbursed for the cost and time spent monitoring financial accounts and looking for signs of identity theft.

Chalmers hasn't seen any suspicious activity. But the information exposed in the hack could be used by criminals to open fraudulent accounts, damaging her credit score. That could lead to higher interest rates or outright rejection of a loan application. If that happens, Chalmers fears she won't be able to purchase merchandise for the store.

"You could be running your business just fine and still have trouble accessing credit. That's why things like this hack can be so worrisome," said Molly Day, VP of Public Affairs at the National Small Business Association.

Related: What to do if your identity was stolen after the Equifax hack

Banks are wary of lending to small businesses, half of which fail within five years. Lenders often require the owner to share their personal information to guarantee a loan. If they get turned down for a small business loan, many owners will open a line of credit in their own name.

On Wednesday, Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Representative Nydia Velázquez urged Equifax to provide greater assistance for small business owners.

"This could be devastating for these businesses and their ability to get credit on reasonable terms. Equifax has an obligation to make this right," said Senator Shaheen in a statement.

The congresswomen also asked Equifax to offer different protective products to small business owners. While it has waived the fee to freeze their credit reports, that fix can make operating a business complicated, they said.

Related: Equifax CEO Richard Smith is out

Equifax collects additional data on companies for business credit reports. The company has not said those reports were part of the hack, but its fumbled response to the incident keeps some people worried.

"Given the way that the company has handled this data breach, I don't fully trust that Equifax is being truthful about the extent of it," said Tom Blake, the owner of Team Technical Services in Florida.

He's also joining the lawsuit, which is seeking class action status on behalf of all affected small business owners.

The company is not required under law to notify businesses if their information was breached like they must tell consumers, said attorney Jason Doss, who's representing the small business owners.

Business owners can review their business credit report, but Equifax charges $99 per copy, the lawsuit said. The company has not waived this fee in the wake of the breach.

Related: Will Equifax be held accountable?

Equifax told CNNMoney that it could not comment on pending litigation, but it would "remain focused on helping our customers, as well as their employees and consumers, to navigate this situation."

If sensitive information about a business, like its business identification number, is exposed, there would be even more reason to worry. While most state laws limit liability for consumers that are victims of identity theft, businesses could be held responsible for unauthorized debts or charges incurred.

"Unfortunately, business owners don't have the same protections as consumers," said John Heath, Directing Attorney at Lexington Law.

Social Surge - What's Trending

Mortgage & Savings


LendingTree

CNNMoney Sponsors