A columnist for the Washington Post recently commented on Rep. Barney Franks efforts to do something about credit reporting agencies like Equifax. While I applaud Rep. Franks efforts to fix the problems with credit reports, I doubt his hearings will make the slightest difference in the way private data is bought and sold in the United States.
Welcome to the Information Age.
I worked as a credit manager for a major retailer for 4 years and continue to study the major players including Equifax et al. Everybody knows they have multiple credit reports but do you know everyone also has a detailed health insurance report? And a car insurance report. And a work history report. And a combined local, state, and federal agency report. Equifax and several other firms efficiently gather every piece of data about you and sell it to anybody willing to pay, every single day. Insurance firms, hospitals, banks, and major employers buy these reports by the thousands, every day. Do not try to find out what is in these reports, by law you are not allowed to see the data. Are they accurate? Hardly, especially if you ever move or have a common name. Are they used to make decisions about your job, hospital care, mortgage, credit, and insurance rates? You bet they are, every day!
Crooks posing as legitimate businesses buy these reports just to steal your identity but you cannot get a copy of the report to check on the accuracy. If you scream and shout you might get a brief summary of the contents of some reports but you will have to pay $25, 50 or more than $100 for the service. When a company goes to buy the same report, including all the juicy details, they only pay a small fee, less than $5 in some cases. Employers, banks, and creditors buy these reports in bulk so the data firms like Equifax give them substantial discounts.
Several years ago, after many interviews, I was hired by a major company. The day before I was to start I received a phone call telling me not to bother showing up. No reason was given. I investigated and learned that the reason was a small note a former employer had included in a work history report filed with a major agency. The note was wrong but I had to hire a lawyer and spend months getting that little note removed from that big database. In the end, the reporting agency told me they had already sold my data to several other firms and the error would never be completely removed from all databases.
Recently my car insurance firm incorrectly placed an accident on my insurance record. A potential employer later asked me if I recently had any accidents. I honestly answered 'No'. The employer pulled an insurance report and denied me a job based on that report. When I contacted my insurance firm they told me they had made that mistake more than a year ago, it could not be corrected and would remain in my record. They went on to tell me that even if I changed insurance firms the error would be passed on to the next company.
A few states, including California, do allow consumers to lock their credit reports. The reporting firms like Equifax and credit giants like VISA and Mastercard are spending millions to reverse these laws and stop other states from passing similar laws. They absolutely do not want you to have any control over the way your credit or other personal data is handled. State governments have only recently decided motor vehicle and tax data should be protected in some way.
Not only must we live with our own mistakes but we must live at least 7 years with the mistakes that corporations make on our behalf. The Information Age is wrought with consequences unforeseen.
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