If you’ve ever been wronged by a large company and wanted to do more than shake your angry irst at a building, you’re going to enjoy meeting Jessamyn West. When the Equifax hack hit, she wanted to do more than whine to friends and family. She wanted justice. So she filed a lawsuit in small claims court — and won!
It was more than a stunt. West wanted to make a point far beyond the $690 she was awarded by the judge. She was tired of people sitting around and meekly accepting the life the digital world is foisting on them. The Vermont based-community technologist asked friends about the hack, and they all seemed to respond the same way.
“They’re like, mah, what can you do? Computers, like, they’re impossible. Everything is impossible. The world is getting worse, blah,” she recalled. “And I was like, these conversations suck.”
I’ve written about this phenomenon before: It’s called learned helplessness. Knock someone down enough, and many will just give up and take it. People often aren’t *really* helpless, but they can be beaten — literally or figuratively — into submission. I say as often as I can that complaining is like voting. Even if you don’t always win, you always have to participate. If you don’t complain, then you get what you deserve.
That’s why, as my pal Ron Lieber said, West should be your new consumer hero. I’ll let her pick up the story from here. You can read her comments to Alia Tavakolian below, but really, it’s a lot more fun to listen to her.
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JESSAMYN: my name is Jessamyn West and I am, I say a community technologist and I live in central Vermont. My background is libraries.
ALIA: I love it.
JESSAMYN: My question, anytime I’m being recorded, is tolerance for swearing.
ALIA: Oh, high tolerance.
ALIA: And she remembers the timeline of the Equifax breach vividly. Because, as she put it-
JESSAMYN: 2017 was a shitty year for me.
ALIA: Her mother had passed away earlier that year.
JESSAMYN: And so I had spent a lot of the summer of 2017 dealing with her affairs.
ALIA: Which in addition to grief, means a lot of paperwork, and getting financial and legal things in order. Then a few months later, the Equifax breach happens:
JESSAMYN: I went to their dumb website to figure out if I had been affected and they were like, you’ve totally been affected. You can apply for a year’s worth of free credit monitoring from basically us – And I was like, no, no, no, you kinda, you kinda burned that bridge with me. So… no?
ALIA: On top of everything else, now she has to worry about identity theft, too?
JESSAMYN: that sucks. This is bullshit. I’m not in a good mood and I would, you know, I want to, I want to try doing something else. Right.
ALIA: Suddenly she’s facing snags when it comes to verifying her identity in all this financial and legal work she’s prepping for her mom’s estate –
JESSAMYN: My sister’s paperwork went through without a problem. With my paperwork, there was a problem. Like, I needed to send additional verification information to prove I was who I was. Can I link that to the equifax breach? Totally not. Do I think it had something to do with it? Maybe. Right?
ALIA: And more things like that start happening. She can’t prove it’s directly Equifax’s fault. But they’ve put her in a vulnerable position, they’re making her life harder — she’s annoyed!
Also: the conversations she’s having about the breach with her friends, who aren’t computer-librarian-research types like her, are annoying her too – !
JESSAMYN: So I would ask them like, well did you check to see if you were affected? And they’re like, mah, what can you do? Computers like they’re impossible. Everything is impossible. The world is getting worse, blah. And I was like, these conversations suck.
ALIA: Another thing on Jessamyn’s mind was her late mother. She was a diligent advocate for herself as a consumer –
JESSAMYN: one of those, um, like consumer complaint people. Not not like in a, in a, in a, like what I would consider to be a shitty way, but in a like I’m not going to get fucked over by the man way
ALIA: So she taps into her mom ’s tenacious energy –
JESSAMYN: I’ve been wronged, this is bullshit. I want to do something about it.
ALIA: And she makes a plan:
JESSAMYN: Uh, I knew where the courthouse was. I knew it was near me. I knew it was cute and not very busy, so I said, you know, maybe it would be fun to try to file a small claims case against Equifax –
ALIA: Why not? At the very least, it’s a pain in Equifax’s neck –
JESSAMYN: Because one of the things I knew is they have to show up.
ALIA: She got to work learning how to file – in her initial research she saw there was an automated tool, a bot she could use, but it only worked in California and New York.
JESSAMYN: Right. story of my life. Here’s a new amazing tool. It’s really only for people who live within 30 miles of San Francisco or Brooklyn.
ALIA: So she consulted a lawyer friend for advice, rallied help on the internet, then filed away.
JESSAMYN: in Orange County, Vermont, which is one of the smallest counties in one of the smallest states.
ALIA: Which, added perk: gave her something great to say in response to the defeatists in her life.
JESSAMYN: And then when I went out to dinner with my friends instead of like blah, blah, what can you do, computers are hard, am I right? I was like, well I filed a small claims case and it’s going to be awesome.
ALIA: So she’s given a court date. Time goes by, she’s getting ready for her case, researching and getting help on the internet, and soon enough it’s time for her. Day. in. court!
JESSAMYN: So I missed the court date and I was like, fuck my life. I cannot believe I did this. And the weird thing was Equifax also missed it, so if I had shown up, I would have just won because they would have defaulted because they have to send a person.
ALIA: Oh my god. How did you feel about that?
JESSAMYN: I just literally, I was dead inside. I was just, I at first, at first I was like, I am the worst in the world because I had like a little internet cheering squad, right?
ALIA: But her internet cheering squad pulls through – someone chimes in on a forum:
JESSAMYN: Oh, you know, you could probably just reschedule. What? Yeah, you can just call the court and I called the court and they were like, oh yeah, sure. Totally. You can reschedule. What? Okay.
ALIA: And this time she makes it, and shows up prepared –
JESSAMYN: I, you know, I checked the date a million times. I’d done a ton of research, like I had a stack of papers, like this is the person who didn’t patch the thing. Here’s how they left the administrator, login open for the thing, And I watched the the senate investigation. And I mean, so ridiculous, right? He got the goldenest golden parachute. ALIA: Yeah.
ALIA: So she gets to the Orange County Vermont Courthouse –
JESSAMYN: which is like a cutie poo little courthouse that kinda like you’d imagine. There’s nobody else there. Uh, Equifax sent a paralegal who was very nice. He is so like, he’s super friendly, he’s like I had to drive on a dirt road to get here. I’m like, yes, you’re in rural Vermont.
ALIA: The judge says she can object to the fact that Equifax sent a paralegal, apparently they’re not supposed to do that, but Jessamyn doesn’t care. The judge asks her questions, how she’s been harmed, why she thinks this is Equifax’s fault. The paralegal then makes his case –
JESSAMYN: The paralegal’s just like, you know, it’s all speculative damages, right? She’s worried about what might happen, but that’s not what small claims is for.
ALIA: She’s asking for $5,000 total, the judge says he’ll look into it and give her an answer via mail – they’re done! She and the paralegal walk back to their cars.
JESSAMYN: We’re kinda chit chatting because he’s actually really nice, um, and he was like, you know, I just have to break it to you. Like I never lose. And I’m like that’s okay.
Like I don’t care. I dragged you out to Vermont. I cost Equifax a ton of money just getting you here. I’m glad you’re having a good time. like I’m not mad, but, you know it’s bullshit. And he gave me his email address. He’s like, you know, if you want to vent or anything. I was like, all right, great. Thanks. He left. I left. I went home and kind of wrote up the story.
ALIA: She eventually finds out she’s awarded $690 dollars. $90 for court fees, $600 for identity theft protection. Which makes me wonder – was it worth it?
JESSAMYN: On a purely like money per hour spent on this basis, there is no way it sort of paid for itself I guess, if that makes sense. But as far as the, the spirit of the thing, like it went exactly how I wanted. Like it changed the conversation that I got to have around Equifax. It taught a bunch of people a lot of different things about data security, data protection and data privacy. I don’t mind being a vehicle for helping tell a story that I think is important and do something that is a little stuntish in order to raise awareness about this. So as far as I’m concerned, so worth it.
ALIA: It’s not so much about the dollar amount. It’s about creating consequences for a big company that, otherwise, might just get away with doing whatever they want. And
JESSAMYN: And what I hope is the next time this comes around somebody else is like, oh, remember that lady who sued Equifax? Like I could sue Quora for losing my information, which is the giant data breach that happened this week. You know, maybe, maybe that’s something I can try and maybe that’s something real people can do.
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