A Private Eye on the Paper Trail

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

"It was a warm day . . . and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine-and-dice emporium called Florian's. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression. . . ."

Okay, look, not many consumer cases start off quite the way the great Raymond Chandler began his 1940s Philip Marlowe classic "Farewell, My Lovely," gumshoeing a dingy part of town with lowlifes waitin' to stick a bean-shooter in your ribs. But that doesn't mean consumer issues don't sometimes pose hardboiled mysteries that are anything but by-the-book.

Take the case of Lynn Taylor. Local Jane. Silver Spring. And a smart cookie, too. A lot smarter than Little Velma, but that's another story. . . .

Wasn't that long ago Taylor stepped into the Sprint wireless telephone store in Silver Spring to sign up for a family plan. She wanted three horns for herself and her two kids. Thought it would be a cinch. Filled out the paperwork. Sprint ran a credit check 'cause that's what phone companies do these days when you're upping for a one- or two-year plan, just to make sure you got the cush.

Got the wrong answer back, though. "I was very surprised to be turned down because the credit report came back as having poor credit," beefs Taylor. "I have always had excellent credit. . . . I tell them there is likely an error."

Sprint, now the consumer portion of Sprint Nextel, told her she needed to ante up a deposit of three C's -- $300. That's a lot of cabbage when ya know they're operating on bogus info. The lady said no, thanks.

The Sprint hombre was chinning about her maybe missing a payment or two on some bill -- the kind of thing that drops a credit score like a hot potato. But the increasingly annoyed Miss Taylor knew she hadn't. She wondered, What's the grift? Had she inadvertently wandered down Shakedown Street? Was Sprint some kind of clip joint running a bunco?

She mixed it up with Sprint customer-service folks and got nowhere fast. Sprint's credit-qualification service, a company named Lightbridge (you go figure), bumped gums about it being "just a conduit" of credit data, so the problem must originate at the credit-reporting bureau.

Taylor ordered her own credit report. Came up roses, too. High credit score -- 790. A FICO that'd put her on Easy Street any day. She goes back to the Sprint store and they run her credit check again. More tripe. A credit score comes back 490 -- good enough to maybe buy a trip to the poorhouse is about all.

She goes round and round with Sprint trying to solve this riddle. Sprint tells her there's nothing else to do. Dead end. And since the info reported in the credit inquiry doesn't appear on the credit report she pulled, she can't take this up with the poobahs at the credit bureaus. "I could not find anyone at Sprint who could address my problems," she says.

That puts Taylor behind the eight ball. See, she wanted to get this whole wrinkle ironed out before she'd need to rely on a credit inquiry again for something important, like, maybe, a mortgage or a loan application. She didn't want the same bogus score popping up to ruin things.

Then out of nowhere, she gets a bill from Sprint for $150. Supposed to be for a deposit for service she never decided to accept. Crazy consumer world out there, don'tcha think? The Sprint guy tells her to ignore the bill. It's a computer error, he says.

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