Apartment hunting in Philadelphia is already hectic enough. So relief washed over me when my girlfriend and I found a charming spot that worked for us. But before I was able to sign the lease, I received a call from the landlord, and he spoke slowly. He seemed concerned, and for good reason: After running a tenant screening on me using a service provided by the credit-reporting behemoth TransUnion, a clutch of criminal offenses appeared, including two felony firearms convictions. He said it didn’t seem to square with what he had expected from a public-radio reporter moving from one trendy neighborhood to another.
It didn’t. I have never owned nor fired a weapon in my life. The other charges the agency listed were equally baffling, since they were just as fictitious. A case of mistaken identity, I thought, should be easy to clear up.
I was wrong. It took me more than a dozen phone calls, the handiwork of a county court clerk and six weeks to solve the problem. And that was only after I contacted the company’s communications department as a journalist.
TransUnion is one of the largest consumer credit-reporting agencies in the country, valued at around $4 billion. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, all credit-reporting agencies, are the three most-complained-about companies in America. These companies furnish reports for landlords to examine tenants, for banks to analyze borrowers, for insurance companies to figure out monthly rates and for employers to probe the backgrounds of potential hires — so they wield serious influence over our financial lives and futures.
But since 2012, according to the bureau, there have been more than 158,000 complaints against the three agencies, 80 percent of which were about incorrect information on credit reports. The agencies’ “primary duty is to make money,” says Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center . “The consumer is not their customer. The consumer is their commodity.”
As a reporter who covers courts, I’m better equipped than the average consumer to navigate county judicial records. I’m also privileged enough to have a job that sometimes allows me to turn a personal frustration into a professional pursuit. But many consumers are facing down error-riddled credit files and don’t know where to begin.
When I contacted TransUnion, a customer-service representative pointed a finger at Rutherford County Circuit Court in Tennessee, which is outside Nashville, where I used to live. The report simply grabs information provided by courts, the rep told me, after a full name and date of birth is queried. If I thought something was wrong, I could file an internal dispute, which could take up to 30 days to complete.
First, I wanted to figure out how this had happened. So I called the court clerk in Tennessee, who confirmed that I had no criminal record there. I provided her with the case numbers that TransUnion generated; the defendant, unsurprisingly, had the same legal first name, last name and middle initial. We were also both born in 1987. But our similarities end there: He has half a dozen convictions. He’s black. He’s currently incarcerated. And an arrest warrant indicated that he was homeless. None of those details have ever described me. When I told all this to TransUnion, another representative said that the company would be in touch once it concluded its investigation; until then, the offenses would stay on its report. Only after I told the company’s press office that I intended to write about this did I receive an email informing me that the charges had been “suppressed” from my consumer file as a “preventative measure.”
Credit reports do not contain criminal history, but agencies like TransUnion offer a multitude of services that can uncover other parts of a consumer’s life, including criminal history. That’s how it tapped Tennessee’s records and conflated me with someone else. And the agencies have no incentive to fix a consumer’s file speedily. It can be a vexing process, says Paul Stephens with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Consumers will often find that their dispute enters a black hole,” Stephens said.
The Federal Trade Commission’s last large-scale study of credit reports, published in 2012, found that 26 percent of the consumers it examined had at least one mistake in their files. And 5 percent had errors that could be devastating, potentially denying lines of credit to them and making things like auto insurance prohibitively expensive. “To have that error level, it’s akin to 5 percent of automobiles spontaneously accelerating and having an accident, or 5 percent of planes falling from the sky,” Wu says. “We wouldn’t accept that error rate in other areas.”
This problem has spawned scores of lawsuits against reporting agencies, state investigations and proposed federal regulations. In March 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement with the three major credit-reporting agencies, including TransUnion, after droves of New Yorkers leveled complaints that trumped-up information was not being removed from their reports. Under the agreement, which 31 state attorneys general joined in a separate settlement two months later, the agencies vowed to overhaul their methods of fixing errors across the country. The settlement also called for specially trained individuals to investigate internal disputes, instead of an automated process, which is how many of the credit firms handled complaints. Some of the major reforms are being implemented behind closed doors, so advocates say the effect of the settlements is still being studied.
In Washington, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) last year introduced a bill to further regulate “data brokers,” which supply agencies like TransUnion with some of their raw information. It would establish stronger procedures to ensure that information is vetted. It also would give consumers better means of disputing a credit file. The legislation is stalled. But as my experience (more than a year after the multi-state settlement) and that of many others shows, only sweeping federal regulation can drive speedier reform at the credit-reporting agencies.
Until then, one way to push a complaint to the top of the heap is to go to court for remedy. Federal lawsuits filed against TransUnion in U.S. district courts for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the law governing how credit agencies report information, have been mounting around the country. The 1970 law was intended to ensure that agencies report carefully and accurately, but the onus is on the affected person to identify and challenge fictitious information, not on the agency for pushing out sloppy reports. Consumers have to find the source of incorrect criminal information, “go back to the court and pull the docket, and get the correct information that needs to be sent by certified mail to these reporting agencies,” says Philadelphia lawyer Lou Schwartz, who has sued TransUnion many times.
Many consumers, though, may never even know that they have been smeared as criminals, turning false credit reports into de facto histories. My would-be landlord told me what he’d found, but he didn’t have to extend that courtesy. Employers are supposed to tell job applicants when they’re rejected because of something in a report, but they often don’t. (The agencies are each required to provide one free report per year, but with no reason to suspect something amiss, most consumers don’t ask.)
James Baker, who works in real estate in Allentown, Pa., wanted to expand his business, so he applied in 2015 for a professional license in several states, including Virginia and Florida. Those two states denied his application after he failed a credit check because of $4,000 in outstanding debt on a credit card. The problem was that no such debt existed, he says. Baker says he paid off his card in 2009. When he contacted the reporting agencies, they told him the debt was “verified accurate.” He never got his Virginia or Florida licenses, and he’s now locked in a federal lawsuit with TransUnion, Equifax, Experian and Barclays, which issued the credit card.
A TransUnion supervisor told me to take a look at the fine print on the bottom of the report about me. It says that “the depth of information available varies” but that “every effort has been made to ensure accuracy or completeness.” By definition, though, the portrait of me created by the report is both inaccurate and incomplete. When I asked the company for a comment for this article, it said that “errors can happen” but it’s rare. TransUnion says fewer than 1 percent of its tenant background screenings are disputed. “We also encourage consumers to use our dispute process to remove any errors from our records,” said spokesman David Blumberg. Last year, its consumer disputes were resolved in less than two weeks on average, he said. He blamed a “processing delay” for the extra time it took TransUnion to complete its investigation into my file.
Keeping on TransUnion’s case about correcting my file and knowing what’s within my rights under the law are not cumbersome tasks for me, a professional reporter who pesters people for a living. Finding the right court official to corroborate that the criminal offenses were connected to another person did not take too much effort, either. Yet for many other people whose files have been mixed up by credit agencies, or whose files show debt that has long been cleared, the avenues for recourse might not be as obvious. And when steps are taken to amend carelessly assembled files, agencies should act quickly, not drag the process out, leaving the helpless consumer in limbo.
In my case, the landlord allowed me to sign the lease, trusting my word when I said TransUnion had not just misrepresented but utterly distorted my background. But what about all the job, rental and insurance applicants who aren’t given the benefit of the doubt? And those who think the information presented to them on a TransUnion report is vetted and truthful? And how about all the consumers who don’t have the resources, know-how or time to confront the agency’s inefficient and frustrating dispute process? The legions of untold consumers who never take their misrepresentations to court, and instead allow their files to languish with falsehoods, are the ones who are most aggrieved.