Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

Fact-checking credit reports

Lucky you if you’re one of the many consumers who recognize an error in your credit file and are able to successfully dispute it, get it removed and receive the credit rating you deserve.

But woe to those who find errors and have trouble getting corrections from any of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian or TransUnion.

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That’s the conclusion of a long-awaited study by the Federal Trade Commission on credit report accuracy.

Each credit bureau maintains files on more than 200 million consumers, which are used to create credit histories. The information is then used to create credit scores, which can affect consumers’ ability to get a credit card, a home loan, an apartment or even a job. The most widely used credit scoring system is FICO, which ranges from 300 to 850. The higher your FICO score, the better.

The FTC found that 26 percent of the 1,001 participants surveyed identified at least one potentially material error, such as a late or missed payment. When information was successfully disputed and modified, 13 percent of participants saw a change in their credit score.

Not all the errors resulted in a significant increase in a consumer’s credit score. But for 5.2 percent of participants, the errors were serious enough that it made them appear more risky and thus resulted in them having to pay more for products such as auto loans and insurance, the FTC said.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives consumers certain rights to dispute and challenge inaccurate information in their credit files. But if errors remain on people’s reports even after they have challenged the information, the current dispute process is not serving consumers well, the FTC said in its report.

As often happens with such studies, people see what they want to see.

The Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade organization, said the FTC’s study proves that the vast majority of credit reports are error-free.

“The FTC’s research determined that 2.2 percent of all credit reports have an error that would increase the price a consumer would pay in the marketplace and that fully 88 percent of errors were the result of inaccurate information reported by lenders and other data sources to nationwide credit bureaus,” the association said in a statement.

The association is right. But when you talk about the millions of files being kept, there are still quite a number of people with incorrect information in their reports. The FTC concluded that the effect of errors on credit scores is generally modest (an average of an 11.8-point increase in score), but for some consumers, it can be large.

“Roughly 1 percent of the reports in the sample experienced a credit score increase of more than 50 points,” the report said.

Several consumer advocacy groups feel that this conclusion confirms their long-held concerns about the accuracy of credit reports.

Because the credit bureaus have become powerful gatekeepers, you ought to care about this issue even if you haven’t found errors in your report, said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“If 5 percent of consumers overall have serious errors, that’s about 10 million adults. Sooner or later, it will happen to you,” he said.

Everyone with a stake in this issue urges consumers to take action by pulling their reports every year. Only about 44 million consumers per year, or about one in five, obtain copies of their files, according to another recent report. You have the right to get a free copy of each of your credit files once every 12 months. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com, the only official site, to get them.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The federal government needs to do more to monitor the systems the bureaus have in place to investigate a consumer’s complaint about an error. Far too often the furnishers of the data will just resend the incorrect information back to the bureaus.

Evan Hendricks, author of “Credit Scores and Credit Reports: How The System Really Works, What You Can Do,” has frequently testified in court cases and before Congress about the struggles people have in correcting their reports. Responding to the FTC survey, he said, “With FTC’s confirmation that credit report errors are all too common and harmful to consumers, it’s high time that credit reporting agencies overhaul their operations so they actually comply with the law and investigate consumers’ disputes, with actual human beings as investigators.”

Since consumers don’t control the flow of the data about them and yet this information is so vital to their credit lives, even the small percentage error rate the FTC found is unacceptable.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness. com.

 
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