Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why the Credit Bureaus Can't Get It Right - Part 2

How Problems Go Global

So suppose there’s a whopper of an error on your credit report - Suppose it says you’re dead.

That’s what Ken Clark, a financial planner in Little Rock, Ark., was told when he tried to buy his wife a minivan. The auto dealer called Clark a con man because his report was marked “deceased.”

When Clark called the credit bureaus to report that he was still breathing, he learned that the real authority on the matter was a Utah bank that issued him a credit card and later reported him dead. To fix the error, Clark had to send a notarized letter and a copy of his utility bill to the bank, which in turn assured the bureaus that he was alive.

Clark’s story sheds light on how the dispute process works.

Credit bureaus say they usually need to check with the lender because 30 percent of disputes are filed by shady credit-repair companies that challenge all the negative information on a consumer’s report, regardless of its validity. Bureaus also have to deal with consumers who pull stunts like concocting official-looking statements on phony letterhead; one bureau says it recently got a letter from “Banke [ed.-this “typo” is intentional, replicating the original] of America.”

To sort the good from the bad, the industry sends almost everything through the automated system e-OSCAR (Electronic Online Solution for Complete and Accurate Reporting), which forwards consumer disputes to lenders for verification.

Here’s where the trouble begins.

Rather than call the lender or send it the consumer’s letter and supporting evidence, the bureaus zap the documents to a data processing center run by a third-party contractor. This system yields considerable savings.

Equifax reduced its per-dispute cost from $4.50 to 50 cents by outsourcing the work to Costa Rica and the Philippines, for example. But consumer advocates say these workers are under enormous pressure to process disputes and forward them to lenders as quickly as possible. While the bureaus say quality is the overriding factor, employees deposed in civil suits describe a harried pace.

One TransUnion manager testified that workers were expected to complete up to 22 cases an hour. An Equifax worker estimated she was allotted four minutes per dispute. To process the letters so rapidly, the workers summarize every complaint with a two-digit code selected from a menu of 26 options.

The code “A3,” for example, stands for “belongs to another individual with a similar name.” The worker can also add a single line of commentary. The two-digit code and short comment is the only information the lender receives about the dispute.

Consumer advocates say these summaries omit the background banks need to understand a complaint, and banks agree. “We’ve met with [the credit bureaus] and said, ‘Look, we need more information,’” says Nessa Feddis, vice president and senior counsel for the American Bankers Association.

But the bureaus say their codes provide accountability and accuracy. “People talking to people? That’s the last thing consumers want,” says Experian’s Maxine Sweet.

She suggests that consumers with complex cases resolve their disputes directly with their lenders. But that can put consumers in a catch-22. Currently, banks have no obligation to investigate a dispute unless it’s forwarded by a credit bureau.

What’s more, consumer attorneys say some lenders do little more than check the disputed information against their own records—even if those records were the source of the error. “It’s a closed loop,” says Michigan lawyer Ian Lyngklip. And some lenders rely on software rather than people to do some of the checking.

Not every dispute sent to a credit bureau gets the e-OSCAR treatment.

Some complaints get extra attention. Experian says it sends disputes to its “special assistance service” department when consumers have “unusual problems” or an elected official requests consideration for a constituent;

Equifax says it handles disputes relating to public figures and court cases with “additional processing procedures.” TransUnion declined to provide details on its VIP service, but its employee manual instructs workers to use “priority processing” if a letter comes from a “judge, senator, congressman, government official, attorney, paralegal, professional athlete, actor, director, member of the media or a celebrity.”

If your case is assigned this status, it may be given to a dedicated rep who will make phone calls on your behalf. But there’s no guarantee of a successful resolution. “I have a lot of cases that go to special services, and they still mess it up,” says Robert Sola, a Portland, Ore., attorney.

Better Times Ahead?

The Consumer Data Industry Association, the trade group, reports that 72 percent of disputes result in an update or correction, suggesting that the e-OSCAR system fixes plenty of errors. However, when the system fails, the consumer has few options.

If he files a second dispute without providing new information, the bureau can dismiss it as “frivolous.” The FTC is supposed to enforce laws requiring the credit bureaus to conduct a “reasonable investigation” into consumer disputes, but it hasn’t taken any action on that front since the start of the decade. (The agency says its recent reviews of consumer complaints yielded no reliable conclusions about report accuracy or the dispute process.)

That leaves the courts. But consumers can’t sue a bureau over an error until they can prove the error is already creating problems. “It’s a system designed to make sure the horse is out of the barn,” says Santa Fe, N.M., attorney Richard Rubin.

And even a successful lawsuit won’t necessarily fix a mistake. Just ask Chino, Calif., marriage counselor Jeff Christensen. In 2003 the cable company Charter apologized to him for reporting a collections account in error and directed the credit bureaus to delete the information.

Experian refused, so Christensen took the bureau to court. In 2005 a judge ruled that Experian was violating the law and fined the company $2,500. Experian paid the fine, but it didn’t correct the error until December 2008—when SmartMoney called—saying it never got the right paperwork.

Turns out, the courts can issue fines, but they can’t demand corrections.

“You have no right to an accurate credit report,” says Lyngklip, the attorney. Consumer advocates estimate that bureaus pay just $25 million a year in court fines—a minor expense for the $7 billion industry.

The credit bureaus say they have no immediate plans to change the dispute process.

They note that turnaround time is at an all-time low, and consumers have embraced a new online dispute-filing feature. “The possibility of errors is at its lowest point ever and continues to decline,” says Equifax’s Klein.

Consumer advocates have their own ideas. They want Congress to amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act so that judges can demand corrections. They’d like the bureaus to establish an appeals process and require proof from lenders who rereport disputed information.

And everyone seems to have their hopes pinned on regulations expected this year that will require lenders to address complaints received directly from consumers. Says Pratt, the trade group president, “That may allow consumers a better route to resolve a stickier dispute.”


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