My financial persona has been violated.

For the past two years I have been the victim in a case of mistaken identity that has ruined my credit rating. Despite my efforts to rectify the situation, I'm beginning to fear that my epitaph may read: "Here lies a deadbeat."

First, allow me to introduce myself -- financially speaking. Apart from a mortgage -- on which I've never missed a payment -- I have no debts. I have never taken out a loan from a financial institution for education, car, consumer, business, investment or any other purpose. I always pay my bills on time, have never passed a bad check or overdrawn my bank account. I have one credit card, which I pay off in full monthly. I have never been delinquent in my taxes and have never been audited. I have a respectable income, a long-term employer and own a house. In short, an impeccable credit record, no?

Wrong. According to TRW Credit Data, a credit rating bureau in Columbia, Md., there are nine derogatory entries -- or bad debts -- listed in my file.

It all began on July 27, 1988, when I received a telephone call in the office from a collection agency demanding payment of $676.88 that I owed on my American Express card. I protested there must be some mistake. For, as I explained, I had not had an Amex card for more than a year. I had decided not to renew mine when it expired in April 1987 since I had applied for and obtained a Visa card from a local bank.

The collection agency representative insisted I was liable for the money since the Social Security number, birth date and phone numbers in her computer were mine. Moreover the card bore the same number as my expired card. There was only one clue: The address was a post office box in Georgia. I live in the District. The collection agency threatened legal action if I did not pay within 72 hours.

My first phone call was to American Express. A sympathetic employee -- the first and last I was to encounter at that company in the course of many calls over the next two days -- pulled the record and read me three transactions. One was from a dentist in Vienna, Va. The dentist's assistant found a receipt signed by a Nancy Ross. Although both parties use the name Nancy L. Ross, my middle name is not the same. And, of course, it was not my handwriting

I spent the rest of the day and evening tracking down my namesake. It seems she had moved to Georgia after living in Washington two streets away from me. She confirmed that her account was delinquent, explaining she had been unemployed for a year.

I tried to report my findings to American Express. One employee listened to my tale and ended the conversation by asking if I would be returning to Georgia soon -- a clear indication he did not believe me. Another was not interested in knowing the whereabouts of the other Nancy Ross because some other department did investigations.

Two days later the collection agency called me at home at 8:30 a.m. to ask if I had been able to borrow the money. I said it was clear that American Express had not informed her about my calls, despite a promise the company would call off the bill collectors.

I told the collection agency about my telephone conversation with my namesake in Georgia. Twenty minutes later the representative called back to say she had spoken with the correct Nancy Ross.

We surmised the mistaken identity resulted from a computer glitch. In the spring of 1987 when Nancy L. Ross (I) repeatedly was being invited by American Express to renew her expired card, Nancy L. Ross (the other) contacted the company asking for a change of address to Georgia. The computer must have interpreted this as a renewal (of my account) with a new address.

I wrote a detailed letter of explanation to American Express. Three weeks later I received a reply stating in part: "Please be assured that our records have been properly adjusted to reflect that your account was canceled per your request. Support documentation has been placed in our files detailing the complete history of our error. I assure you that this unfortunate mishap will have no adverse effect on your good credit rating." (Emphasis added.)

End of story? Not at all. Last month I decided not to renew my Visa card. Instead I applied for an AT&T universal card that allows one to make long distance phone calls with the same card and carries no annual fee. An AT&T rep told me I would get the new card before I had to stop using my old Visa card.

Three weeks later and no universal card. I called AT&T. My credit record, I was told, was so bad I would not be granted an AT&T card. The company cited "derogatory payment history, slow and/or past due payments, and excessive revolving credit utilization." I was instructed to contact TRW Credit Data for a copy of my file. What I received astounded me.

It showed approximately $3,000 in unpaid bills that major department stores, a collection agency and a bank credit card issuer had written off as uncollectible. There were additional retail accounts and mortgage payments to a Georgia bank listed as being in arrears. I have never had charge or credit cards at any of the places mentioned.

Mixed in with these derogatory references were two positive ones from banks where I've had accounts plus inquiries from American Express and AT&T. There were four different addresses listed (including mine) and two Social Security numbers.

TRW invited me to write a letter disputing (a) that the account did not belong to me (but suggesting it was perhaps that of a family member) or (b) that the status of the information was not correct.

My response would be appended to the file as required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1971. In addition, the bureau would make an investigation. A supervisor explained this consisted of verifying name, birth date, Social Security number and other vital statistics. A handwriting sample would not be used. Creditors also would be asked if they wanted the debts to remain in Nancy L. Ross's files.

I realized that if a simple verification of the statistics at the top of the page were done without a full cross-check of Social Security numbers and addresses, the mystery would not likely be resolved, AT&T would not grant the universal card, and the debts would continue to blot my record. (I quickly renewed my Visa card with the bank to be safe.) What legal recourse, if any, did I have?

I had always thought the authors of the Fair Credit Reporting Act had a good idea when they decided to allow the consumer to append a rebuttal to his or her credit record.

But this was different. I didn't want the debts challenged; I wanted them expunged.

According to Elgie Holstein of Bankcard Holders of America, however, American Express's legal obligation extends no further than its records; TRW's records are its own concern. Moreover, explained Holstein, who heads the Herndon-based consumer organization, the law does not define what constitutes an adequate investigation on the part of the credit bureau.

"It does no good to go to the credit bureau unless you go to the subscriber {the merchant}, who has no obligation to correct {the error} unless and until you initiate the dispute." Holstein continued, "The fundamental problem with FCRA is that the underlying commercial relationship is between the credit bureau and the paying customer, not the consumer." Although a consumer is required to pay the bureau to see his or her file -- unless credit has been denied -- the bureau really makes its money from its merchant subscribers. These are the businesses that pay the bureau for information.

Finally, Holstein advised, a lawsuit would be futile. A bankrupt customer who lost his business due to a false credit report unsuccessfully sued the credit bureau for damages. The judge ruled that he had failed to prove malice on the part of the bureau.

So I began calling the creditors trying to convince them that they had the wrong person. A few were sympathetic, like the bank clerk who suffered through a similar nightmare. A few were suspicious, like the lawyer for a New York-based department store that got stiffed for $300. Another told me my namesake had declared bankruptcy, thereby guaranteeing the debts would remain on my/our credit record for seven years.

But the worst prognosis came from a creditor who asked if I knew his bank -- like many other merchants -- also reported to two other major credit bureaus, CBI and Trans Union. These in turn feed information -- or misinformation -- to smaller bureaus.

A congressional hearing on FCRA is set for June 12. A number of amendments have been introduced to curb the power of credit bureaus to disseminate consumer data. One provision also would require credit bureaus to take into account any evidence presented by the consumer to disprove an error.

Meanwhile, the good news: I convinced the creditors that they were dunning the wrong Nancy L. Ross; since this piece was written I received a clean bill of financial health from TRW. The bad news: There's no indication that this can't or won't happen again. For a credit report: TRW, P.O. Box 779, Columbia, Md. 21045; (301) 381-3200 or 621-8781. Fee: Maryland, $5; Virginia & D.C., $15.