(In 5th paragraph of Sept. 27 item corrects to show that free service allows consumers to lock and unlock their Equifax credit reports, not freeze them)
By John McCrank
(Reuters) - Equifax Inc promised to make it easier for consumers to control access to their credit records in the wake of the company's massive breach after the top U.S. consumer financial watchdog called on the industry to introduce such a system.
Equifax's interim chief executive officer, Paulino do Rego Barros Jr., vowed to introduce a free service by Jan. 31 that will let consumers control access to their own credit records.
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Barros, who was named interim CEO on Tuesday as Richard Smith stepped down from the post amid mounting criticism over the handling of the cyber attack, also apologized for providing inadequate support to consumers seeking information after the breach was disclosed on Sept. 7. He promised to add call-center representatives and bolster a breach-response website.
"I have heard the frustration and fear. I know we have to do a better job of helping you," Barros said in a statement published in The Wall Street Journal.
Equifax announced the free service that allows consumers to lock and unlock the credit reports with the firm after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) director, Richard Cordray, told CNBC earlier in the day that the agency would beef up oversight of Equifax and its rivals.
"The old days of just doing what they want and being subject to lawsuits now and then are over," Cordray said.
He also called for implementing a scheme of preventive credit monitoring.
"They are going to have to accept that. They are going to have to welcome it. They are going to have to be very forthcoming," Cordray said.
The Equifax hack compromised sensitive data of up to 143 million Americans and prompted investigations by lawmakers and regulators, including the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS), which issued a subpoena to Equifax demanding more information about the breach.
Federal laws give the CFPB the power to supervise and examine large credit-reporting firms to ensure the quality of information they provide. In January, the CFPB fined TransUnion and Equifax $5.5 million in total for deceiving customers about the usefulness and cost of their credit scores.
Cordray called for expanded powers to cover data security to prevent breaches and suggested placing monitors inside credit reporting firms, borrowing a tactic from the regulatory regime for banks.
The CFPB is working with the Federal Trade Commission and New York's DFS on a new regulatory framework, Cordray said. He also called for Congress to tighten oversight of the industry.
TransUnion said in a statement that it had "long been subject to regulatory oversight from state and federal regulators including the CFPB."
Experian did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by John McCrank in New York; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington and Jim Finkle in Toronto; Writing by Michelle Price; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)