Disclaimer: John Oliver is not suitable for children or people offended by raunchy humor that includes obscenities. But on the problems with credit reporting he is exactly correct.

If your name is Judy Thomas, you live in Ohio and you have good credit, you don't want to be mixed up with Judith Kendall who lives in Utah and doesn't have good credit. Worse, if you are mixed up with her, you hope you can quickly get the mistakes fixed. Unfortunately, Judy's story of credit bureau ineptitude, recalcitrance, and recidivism began in 1999 and still hasn't ended.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explained how credit reports play a surprisingly large role in our lives, but even more surprising is how often they contain critical mistakes. John Oliver helps credit bureaus see why this is a problem –- and that Judy still hasn’t been able to resolve her mixed up identity.

In 2013, Judy told her story for the CBS 60 Minutes episode "40 Million Mistakes" (watch video). Steve Kroft interviewed Judy and other victims, spoke with Judy's attorneys, Sylvia Goldsmith and Len Bennett (both members of our ally the National Association of Consumer Advocates) , interviewed Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and even traveled to Chile, where the credit bureau Experian sends consumer disputes to die. The 60 Minutes story ran on the eve of the release of a major report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which found that "one in 20 of the study participants had an error on his or her credit report that lowered the credit score to a degree that the error likely made getting credit more expensive." Put another way, 5% of consumers had serious errors in their credit report. While the credit bureaus have been trying to read the FTC numbers a different way, that's ten times the number of consumer problems they've previously admitted to. And, that’s 10 million people.

As John Oliver reported: “A [1998] survey by the Public Interest Research Group found nearly one third of all credit reports contained serious errors.”

That wasn’t our first report, it was one in a series that began in 1990 and continues through today. The three big credit bureaus –- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- have been the subject of the most complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) since the start of last year.  We drilled down into these complaints in 2013 with our report: Big Credit Bureaus, Big Mistakes. The FTC, which was the agency previously charged with enforcement over the bureaus, is largely run by machines (they have as few human helpers as possible) and was never given enough guns by Congress to fight back. In the Matrix movie trilogy -- set in a future dystopia where humans fight back against computers and machines, hero Neo asks for "guns, lots of guns."

In 2010, however, The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 established the CFPB would have the guns that the FTC has never had. By law, the CFPB has supervisory authority over big banks and over payday lenders, mortgage lenders, and private student lenders of any size. Unlike the FTC, CFPB gained the additional big gun of supervisory authority -- the right to go inside a firm's operations at any time -- if it defines other firms as "larger marketplace participants." The first financial sector that the CFPB designated here was, you guessed it, the credit reporting industry.

Four things credit bureaus don’t want you to know:

  1. Everyone has trouble fixing their own credit reports but you can premeptively figure out if something is wrong before you apply for a job or a place to live.

    Our advice:
    Get your own credit reports here at the FTC (for free) before you apply for credit or a job, to see if they are accurate.
  2. In 2013, over 40 years after enactment of the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act, the credit bureaus are finally getting around to sharing consumer complaint details with creditors: "a new technology will go live later this year to enable nationwide credit bureaus to provide lenders with images of any validating documents submitted by consumers. According to the CFPB 44% of consumers submit a dispute in writing." 

    Our advice:
    A detailed report on this system by colleagues at the National Consumer Law Center is called "Automated Injustice." Additional NCLC information on fixing credit bureau mistakes is here.
  3. Free credit reoprts aren't always "free." Don’t be fooled by some “free” credit reports. The Experian-owned website and others that tout "free" trial offers for report and score monitoring products. The catch? First, the trial offers last as little as 7 days, and you may only be able to access the products 5 of those 7 days, and if you fail to cancel properly, you will be billed up to $19.99/month or more for ongoing monitoring. Worse, in an effort to dance around new regulations on deceptive marketing, some "free" credit scores now cost $1.

    Our advice:
    Run, don't walk, away from and its ilk. Go to this FTC website to learn how to get your own annual free credit reports and how to fix mistakes. Get one every several months from each of the Big Three and you'll have really free credit monitoring.
  4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is using its new tools to look inside credit bureau black box operations.

    Our advice: Take advantage of the CFPB's "tell your story" and complaint tools if you have a problem with a credit bureau.

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