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Keeping credit bureaus in check

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Finally, the companies that have been keeping track of how we handle our credit will be watched closely by a single federal agency.

On Sept. 30, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — exercising the muscle it was given by Congress — will start supervising credit reporting agencies, including the big three: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

It’s always confounded me that these credit bureaus haven’t had more oversight, considering that the files they compile and use to create credit histories are then used to create credit scores, which affect consumers’ ability to get a credit card, home loan, apartment and even a job.

For years, consumer advocates have complained that the information collected often includes errors. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the bureaus and any businesses supplying them with data must correct inaccurate information. The bureaus, in turn, are required to put systems in place that allow consumers to dispute information.

However, surveys have shown that getting erroneous information removed from credit files can be an exasperating experience.

The credit bureau industry claims that most reports are accurate. But one problem with the system is that the bureaus rely on information provided to them by companies seeking to collect debts.

You’ve no doubt heard the stories of people spending hours and their own money — sometimes thousands of dollars — trying to correct mistakes. You might even have your own story. I do.

A storage company claimed I owed them money. I contacted the credit bureau (the company had reported the damaging data only to one bureau) and disputed the information. The bureau then asked the company that reported the information to verify the debt. What do you think the storage company did?

They reported back the same wrong information, reducing my credit score by about 100 points. I know this because my other two credit reports, which did not contain the incorrect information, produced higher credit scores. The major difference in the three reports was the erroneous overdue debt.

After the so-called investigation, the incorrect information was again listed in my file. I complained again. After a few rounds of this nonsense, I finally was able to get the inaccurate information removed.

My case had only minor consequences for me. Yet other stories abound of what some people have to endure trying to get their credit reports corrected.

The CFPB will supervise credit reporting agencies that have more than $7 million in annual receipts. This means that the agency’s authority will cover about 30 companies that account for about 94 percent of the market. The three major credit bureaus issue more than 3 billion consumer reports a year and maintain files on more than 200 million Americans, the CFPB said.

Here’s what I hope the bureau will do when it starts conducting examinations of whether and how credit bureaus are complying with the law:

●Specifically outline what it means to “investigate” a consumer’s complaint about an error. It’s not enough for the bureaus to say they’ve investigated a claim when all they do is ask the creditor, who just resends the inaccurate information. The investigation should include making the creditor offer proof. And the proof should be more than just the person’s name, last known address, Social Security number and debt amount. The documentation of the debt needs to be more substantial, especially given the incidents of identity theft in which crooks steal basic identifying information and open credit in other people’s names.

●Require the credit reporting agencies to provide randomly selected consumer credit reports that would test for the accuracy and completeness of information contained in the files. They should be required to pull enough files that the pool is statistically significant and nationally representative. Several years ago, the Federal Trade Commission found that consumers could be recruited to conduct a thorough and effective review of their credit reports with just telephone interviews.

●Set up a mystery shopping program similar to what some retailers do when they hire companies to send in people to test their customer service. In this case, the CFPB could recruit consumers who have verifiable errors in their reports and test how the credit bureaus handle their claims.

“Because of the critical role that credit reports play in consumers’ lives, it is our job to make sure we understand the full extent of these problems and address them effectively,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said.

I hope the watchdog agency is effective in addressing consumer concerns about credit bureaus. It’s only fair that since we are graded on what’s in our credit reports, the companies that collect the information be scrutinized even more for the accuracy of the data they pass along for a profit.

Readers can 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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