Oct. 26, 2012 at 8:12 AM ET
A federal law is supposed to guarantee that credit report errors get fixed. So why do some people wind up spending months or even years trying to remove legitimate errors that are ruining their credit?
Take the case of Rahul Sharma of College Station, Texas. With the Fair Credit Reporting Act in place, it should not have taken Sharma six years and a meeting with a lawyer to get errors ranging from bad Social Security numbers to accounts that weren't his erased from his credit report. But despite the decades-old consumer protection law, which guarantees consumers the right to get legitimate errors off their reports, Sharma fell through the cracks of the credit reporting system.
Representatives across the credit reporting and banking industries say that cases like Rahul Sharma's are rare. "Like anything, (the credit reporting dispute process) is not a perfect system," said Nessa Feddis, vice president and general counsel at the American Bankers Association. "Sometimes mistakes happen."
However, consumer advocates and attorneys experienced with handling Fair Credit Reporting Act cases say that Sharma's hellish experience of dealing with errors serious enough to deny him credit for more than half a decade is a perfect example of the problems they have been complaining about for years. The automated credit reporting dispute system used by the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — is broken, they say, and is causing too many consumers such as Sharma to miss out on the opportunity to apply for affordable credit, get a job in certain industries or avoid rate hikes on everything from apartment rentals to new cell phones.
"The dispute process has absolutely no value whatsoever for consumers," said Leonard Bennett, a consumer lawyer in Newport News, Va., who has repeatedly testified before Congress about the credit report dispute system.
After a consumer has carefully gathered evidence proving the information isn't theirs and written a detailed dispute explaining the mistake, the credit bureau will usually discard the packet of evidence, say consumer advocates. Instead, the dispute will get compressed into a two- to three-digit computer code and a 100-character summary, and it will be sent electronically to another automated system, where it may be reviewed solely by another computer, according to court documents and interviews with people familiar with the process.
If the automated system fails to catch and correct a mistake, consumers can dispute again. However, if they complain too many times, the credit bureaus can legally dismiss the complaints as frivolous and ignore them, trapping consumers in a nightmare of bad credit they didn't earn. Consumers' only way out? Sue.
Bureaus required to investigate disputes
By law, any time a consumer says there is something wrong on his or her reports, the credit bureaus are required to conduct "a reasonable investigation" into the disputed information and remove anything they can't verify as accurate. However, the reality is that "the credit bureaus actually spend very little time — only a few minutes, at best — investigating a consumer's dispute," said DeVonna Joy, an attorney with the Consumer Justice Law Center in Big Bend, Wis.
Consumer lawyers say the short amount of time credit bureaus spend investigating consumers' disputes is proof that the bureaus are skirting the law.
Credit bureaus say the issue is more complicated. They maintain that their systems are in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and they do the best they can with the resources they have.
"We take our obligations very seriously and complete investigations and disputes as required," said Rod Griffin, director of education at the credit reporting agency Experian. Lenders wouldn't trust them if they didn't, he added. "Businesses rely on the accuracy of the credit history to make sound decisions, and if the credit reports were rife with inaccuracy, any usefulness or credibility would be undermined and we would provide no useful service," said Griffin.
Watchdog agency steps in
Until recently, the question of whether credit bureaus are investigating consumers' disputes as thoroughly as the law requires has largely been left up to juries to decide on a case-by-case-basis.
Before the federal consumer watchdog agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, gained regulatory authority on Sept. 30 of this year, the credit reporting industry was regulated solely by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC occasionally issued enforcement actions against companies that it said violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act. However, the FTC's resources were extremely limited, said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
As a result, many of the credit bureaus' dispute practices remained an industry secret, apart from snippets that were revealed in court cases and through congressional testimony, and the bureaus largely escaped serious regulatory scrutiny.
That's about to change, however. Examiners at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will soon begin scheduling office visits to determine how closely the credit reporting agencies are following the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
By doing so, consumer advocates hope that the bureau will finally begin answering the highly controversial questions that have split consumer advocates and industry leaders for years. For example: When it comes to credit report disputes, what exactly is a "reasonable investigation" under the law? And are credit bureaus — and the entities that that provide them with the information that make up their reports — expending enough financial resources to keep a reasonable majority of consumers from going through unnecessary turmoil trying to get errors removed from their reports?
A mostly automated system
When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau begins scheduling on-site visits to the credit reporting agencies, consumer advocates say one of the first stops on their route should be the agencies' processing centers where the disputes initially get reviewed.
Most of those trips will require a passport. All three credit bureaus have outsourced at least part of their dispute programs to contractors abroad, said consumer lawyer Leonard Bennett.
Foreign employees of those contractor quickly scan consumers' disputes for relevant information and compare them with preset computer codes that describe typical consumer disputes. For example, a code might say "not his/hers" or "claims paid the original creditor before collection status or paid before charge-off." Or a dispute code may be even more general, such as "consumer states inaccurate information," with a note to the creditor to "provide and confirm complete ID and account information."
Once the worker has determined what code best fits the dispute, he or she will type the code into a brief online form called an Automated Dispute Verification Form, along with a 100-character summary (around 20 words) of the dispute, and send that form electronically to the original furnisher of the information.
That, said Bennett, is the full extent of the credit bureau's investigation process. "Once the data, your 10-page letter and all your exhibits and documents or affidavit, has been reduced to the two- or three-digit code, the credit bureaus' involvement is over," said Bennett.
The employees don't conduct any other type of investigation, he said. Instead, their "single job is to read the letter as quickly as possible [and] determine which of a limited number of two- or three-digit codes best describes that consumer dispute."
Norm Magnuson, vice president of the consumer reporting agency trade group, the Consumer Data Industry Association, described a similar process. "Almost all disputes now are handled electronically," Magnuson confirmed. "There's a process where it comes to one of the CRAs and they input what the complaint is about."
Disputes are processed electronically, he said, in order to accommodate as many disputes as possible within the 30-day time frame that credit bureaus are allowed, by law, to investigate a dispute. "The genesis of this is that years and years ago, one of the criticisms was that it took too long to respond to complaints," said Magnuson.
"Almost all of the disputes that come in, they're fairly standard," he added. However, he admitted, some consumers with more complicated disputes do fall through the system's cracks.
"We try to devise a system that can accommodate people and get back to them in a timely manner, and I think that's what the system does," said Magnuson. "At least in 97 percent of the cases."
If consumers' cases are more complicated, they can also try calling a customer service representative by phone, said Experian's Griffin, where they will get more personal attention. "Our representatives spend as much time as necessary to resolve an issue when they are on the phone with someone," he said.
Disputing by phone doesn't necessarily mean consumers will get a full airing of their disputes once they are translated onto paper, said the Consumer Justice Law Center's DeVonna Joy. "In litigation, I get their records and [the dispute] is reduced to one or two sentences, and you know they talked more than that," she said.
Once the credit bureaus' employees are finished translating a dispute into an Automated Dispute Verification Form, they send that form to the original supplier of the information through an electronic portal called e-Oscar. Usually, any supporting evidence that the consumer submitted with the dispute gets left at the bureau's processing center, say consumer lawyers.
"Initially, we don't necessarily transmit all of the documentation that comes to us in every case," said Griffin. "But we'll send it to the lender if necessary."
At that point, the credit bureau's investigation is done. "The credit reporting company's role is to accurately report what lenders are telling us is in their records," said Griffin. "We don't have direct access to a business's records," he said, so the bureaus must rely on the furnisher to investigate their records and ensure that they are accurate.
Consumer advocates say that's not an excuse. "If they don't have access to the files, they should ask for them," said the National Consumer Law Center's Chi Chi Wu. "The credit reporting agencies like to say they're just a library. They're just a database. But that's not true," she said. "The consumer reporting agencies are supposed to have an independent role," said Wu. "They're not supposed to be parroting the furnisher, which is what they're doing now."
The duty to actively and substantially investigate a dispute — and examine any relevant evidence — is in the case law, she said.
What's a 'reasonable investigation'?
For example, Newport News-based lawyer Leonard Bennett pointed to a 1997 3rd Circuit Court case, Cushman v. TransUnion, that he said sets the standard for a "reasonable investigation" under the law. "It's the most-often cited from coast to coast," said Bennett.
In that case, the judge ruled that the credit reporting agency TransUnion violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to compare evidence, such as mismatched handwriting samples, and independently verify the misinformation that the original furnishers, American Express and Chase, were reporting.
The 1997 case, in which Pennsylvania resident Jennifer Cushman's credit reports were littered with accounts opened by an identity thief, is a good example of how consumers' legitimate errors get repeatedly verified, said the attorneys.
Furnishers, such as banks or debt collectors, are also required by the act to conduct a "reasonable investigation" of a consumer's dispute. However, their investigation processes vary and many rely on automated systems as well.
For example, said Paul Hartwick, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, in an email, "We may receive credit bureau disputes from either individual consumers or from the credit bureaus. We have automated processes for handling both types of disputes."
Hartwick said that the bank's automated systems are set up to catch more complicated errors, such as when a clerical error at Chase caused the bank to misreport a consumer's information.
However, consumer lawyers say that multiple court cases have demonstrated that many furnishers' investigation systems are inadequate. "All they're doing is checking to see if what's in their computer system is the same information that's in the ACDVs (Automated Consumer Dispute Verification Form)," said Leonard Bennett. So, "what happens is, unless the creditor itself made the correction to its computer system, the dispute process is hopeless," said Bennett.
Nessa Feddis of the American Bankers' Association disagreed with that description. "I don't know how they know that unless they've been inside the bank," said Feddis. "It can't just be, 'This is what it's in our files and that's what matched,'" she said. "They have to do something more than that."
However, Chi Chi Wu said that evidence shows not all furnishers are double-checking their own information. "In the case law, it's been documented of furnishers where all they do is check their own database," she says.
"In my mind, and I think in the minds of other people, (a reasonable investigation) means actually having a human being look into a matter," said Wu. "None of that happens with an automated system."
Cary Flitter, a consumer lawyer and law professor in Philadelphia, said that credit bureaus and information furnishers' decision to automate the dispute process, rather than staff it with trained investigators, comes down to dollars and cents.
"It's a business decision about the level of accuracy that they want competing with the business cost of fully or properly administering disputes," Flitter said. "At the end of the day, that's where it falls."
"If they get it wrong, they get it wrong," added Flitter. "The great majority of them don't do anything about it."
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