Making the rounds today is a chatbot that claims it will let you sue Equifax for thousands of dollars in small claims court without using a lawyer.
The Verge boldly stated you can claim up to $25,000 dollars, and the chatbot says that it’s the “first case of a fully automated lawsuit.” While it would be cool to fill out a form and get a check a few months later, this isn’t the case.
In reality, this “fully automated” chatbot is asking for very basic personal information, like your address, and populating it into a PDF that you can use to start the process of taking Equifax to small claims court. The form is also pre-populated with Equifax’s address and the local state agent’s address, so I guess that saves you a few minutes of googling.
After you’re done using the chatbot you’re still going to need to turn in your form and pay a fee (usually in person) and, more importantly, actually show up to court on a designated day and argue your case in front of a judge. While the chatbot also fills in a few words of reasoning — on the New York form it fills in that “Equifax was negligent under Code § 1411 in revealing my data” — this is meaningless as you’re still going to need to argue your case in your own words.
Here’s where your troubles really begin. Small claims courts are for settling known, documented damages. If Equifax’s negligent security practices provably caused your credit card to be spoofed and your identity stolen, and you had to pay $4,500 to get that straightened out, small claims would be a good place to start.
But few will have seen concrete damages so soon after the hack, let alone have thoroughly investigated, resolved and documented them.
And because the form automatically is putting the maximum amount of damages allowed in each state, you’re going to look pretty dumb showing up to argue you suffered $10,000 worth of damages when you may not even have concrete evidence that your personal data was accessed.
Oh, and assuming you’re fine with the above, only one state (Tennessee) has a $25,000 limit for small claims court. Most states are below $10,000, and currently the chatbot only works for New York and California residents — so even if you do live in Tennessee you can’t file a claim for $25,000. The website says that the other states are coming in “12 hours,” but it’s said this since yesterday.
Filing a lawsuit based on information you know to be wrong (i.e. that you have suffered $10,000 worth of damages but have no documentation) may also invite the ire of the court. Judges don’t take kindly to people wasting the court’s time and resources.
Even if you did manage to get the court to hear it, it’s entirely possible that Equifax would simply move to have the case taken out of small claims court and consolidated in a state or federal court. Once it’s out of small claims court — where, we’ve already established, most people using this service would already be at sea — you’d really be out of your depth.
This chatbot is an extension of DoNotPay, a bot designed to get you out of parking tickets. The founder, Joshua Browder, said he hopes his service “will replace lawyers, and, with enough success, bankrupt Equifax.”
While Browder told us they are working on handling the filing process as well, and that by “automated” he meant that it could be done without a lawyer, the initial claims of legal automation he set forth are extremely misleading. The tool he created, while clearly well-intentioned, is nothing of the kind. The most one can say is that if you were already planning to file a small claims suit, this could save you a little time. But it fails to account for anything but the initial pre-filing process and could hang its users out to dry as a result.
The Equifax breach is one of the largest of all time; the legal battle proving various points of neglect, damage, breach of contract and so on may take a year or more to settle. This isn’t something that’s going to be handled without lawyers, and if you take the law into your own hands you may jeopardize your ability to participate in a class action lawsuit — the class, for instance, may specifically comprise people affected by the hack who have not taken other legal action.
It may be frustrating to wait, but it’s unlikely that the company will go unpunished. But comprehensively justified legal action is a dish necessarily served cold. We’ll be following the various class action lawsuits against Equifax and will keep you apprised of your options as they develop.