Report: Consumer Protection

Mistakes Do Happen 1998

Credit Report Errors Mean Consumers Lose
Released by: U.S. PIRG

The most valuable thing we have is our good name. As consumers, the most common reflection of our reputation as someone who pays bills on time, is trustworthy and financially sound is our credit report. Unfortunately, the information contained in our credit reports, which are bought and sold daily to nearly anyone who requests and pays for them, does not always tell a true story.

Credit bureaus collect and compile information about consumer creditworthiness from banks and other creditors and from public record sources such as lawsuits, tax liens and legal judgements. The three major credit bureaus -- Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax, and Trans Union -- maintain files on nearly 90 percent of all American adults. Those files are routinely sold to credit grantors, landlords, employers, insurance companies, and many others interested in the credit record of a consumer, often (legally) without the consumer's knowledge or permission. Conversely, consumers rarely check their credit record until after they've been denied or otherwise encountered a problem. Throughout the 1990s, credit report errors have been a serious problem that several states and Congress have addressed.

This is the PIRGs' sixth study on credit report accuracy and privacy issues since 1991. The PIRGs have also participated in state and federal legislative battles to improve credit reporting laws. This report is our first investigation of credit report accuracy since 1996 Congressional changes to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), designed to improve the accuracy and ease of access to reports, took effect in September 1997. The findings of Mistakes Can Happen are troubling. An alarming number of credit reports contain serious errors that could cause the denial of credit, a loan, or even a job. Further, some consumers never even received their reports, even after repeated calls. 

Among the major credit report accuracy findings of the survey:

  • Twenty-nine percent (29%) of the credit reports contained serious errors - false delinquencies or accounts that did not belong to the consumer - that could result in the denial of credit;
  • Forty-one percent (41%) of the credit reports contained personal demographic identifying information that was misspelled, long-outdated, belonged to a stranger, or was otherwise incorrect;
  • Twenty percent (20%) of the credit reports were missing major credit, loan, mortgage, or other consumer accounts that demonstrate the creditworthiness of the consumer;
  • Twenty-six percent (26%) of the credit reports contained credit accounts that had been closed by the consumer but incorrectly remained listed as open;
  • Altogether, 70% of the credit reports contained either serious errors or other mistakes of some kind.
    Among the survey's major access to credit report findings: 
  • Of the consumers that did obtain their credit reports, at least 14% of them were forced to call back 3 or more times after receiving busy signals or had to write a letter in order to receive their report;
  • And 12% of the consumers waited two weeks or longer to receive their report once they finished requesting it. It took more than a month for one California man to receive his report.
  • Overall, 15% of consumers who attempted to participate in the survey either made at least 3 phone calls and never got through or requested their reports but never received them.

Although credit reports contain vitally important information about most consumers, the accuracy of those reports is far from guaranteed. While credit bureaus and creditors have gone to great lengths to ensure that they have the right to collect and compile monstrous lists of information about most of us, mistakes in credit reports do happen, and more often than credit bureaus and, also, banks and department stores (who are often responsible for the mistakes) would like us to think. Until policymakers and credit bureaus do what it takes to allow consumers to have free and easy access to their credit reports and set tougher standards to prevent and clean-up mistakes, too many credit reports will remain a ticking timebomb of dangerously inaccurate information. And our good names will continue to be at risk, as we pay the price for mistakes made by credit bureaus and other data dealers.

Despite major improvements to the law made by Congress and several states in the last several years, PIRG recommends the following actions:

  • Improved access to credit reports be granted to consumers. Each national credit bureau should annually and automatically mail a copy of each consumer's report. 
  • Increased duties to ensure accuracy and avoid errors be imposed on banks, department stores and other firms that furnish information to credit bureaus, and that immunity restrictions on consumers' ability to sue these furnishers be repealed. 
  • That the Federal Trade Commission investigate credit bureau compliance with new provisions requiring easier access to credit bureau personnel, especially during normal business hours.

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