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Clean Your Credit Report

Don't wait till a job or a mortgage is on the line to find out about erroneous black marks

By Eric C. EvartsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1998


If you haven't checked out your credit report lately, it may spell trouble.

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In a recent study by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), 29 percent of credit reports contained serious errors and 70 percent contained mistakes of some kind.

If serious errors show up on your credit report it could mean you get turned down for a home loan, a credit card, even a job, medical insurance, or apartment.

They can be corrected, but it often takes you to make the first moves.

Dueling reports

The nation's three major credit reporting agencies refute the PIRG report, citing what they claim is unscientific methodology.

In the study, 155 PIRG employees and volunteers around the country sought copies of their own credit reports and checked them for errors.

The group studied 133 reports (it says 22 subjects never received their reports).

By contrast, industry sources cite a 1992 study of 10,000 consumers by consulting firm Arthur Andersen. There, only 0.2 percent of credit reports contained errors that resulted in a denial of credit.

"I don't think the [credit] industry would survive" if the country's 2 million mortgages and 4 million auto loans a year were based on grossly inaccurate credit data, says David Van de Walle, a spokesman Trans Union, one of three large credit bureaus.

The PIRG report had no corresponding figure on denials of credit.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, says David Medine, associate director for credit practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Serious errors on even 0.2 percent of credit reports is a huge number, several hundred thousand Americans. And the reports remain the No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the FTC.

"Perfection is unlikely," Mr. Medine says, "but a high error rate is unacceptable."

How errors creep in

Errors are usually introduced in one of four ways:

1. A bank or other creditor furnishes incorrect information to the credit reporting agency, usually if they have credited payment to the wrong account.

2. The credit bureau confuses files of creditors with similar names, or those of relatives or roommates. This happens especially if consumers omit a Jr. or Sr. from their name on a credit application or use different names - such as Robert and Bob - when applying for different accounts.

3. The bureau loses records of credit accounts in good standing, or credits them to other consumers.

4. Records of account payoffs are not up to date. Credit bureau records get updated only once a month.

One of the most serious sources of errors today is so-called identity theft.

These errors reach a wide audience, from lenders looking at loan applications to employers, insurance companies, and the like.

The three major bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union, may not report negative information more than seven years old (or 10 years old for bankruptcies) in most cases. But if you apply for a job paying more than $75,000 a year, for more than $100,000 of credit, or for more than $150,000 worth of insurance, negative information may be reported indefinitely.