Jewish World Review August 17, 2002 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5763

Jeff Gelles
Consumer Watch

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Consumer Reports

It's up to you to keep credit bureaus honest -- Anthony J. Biondo Jr. was turned down in February when he asked CitiBank to increase his credit limit, so he almost expected to find some ugly surprises on his credit report.

But when he finally saw the document, Biondo was stunned. It read like the spare outline of a busy, somewhat checkered life.

Just not his life.

The errors in the report all came in the portion attributed to TransUnion, one of the three major national credit reporting agencies. To Biondo, some of them seemed plainly ridiculous.

TransUnion said Biondo had been in its files since 1971.

But Biondo wasn't born till 1978 - to which the credit report itself also attests.

TransUnion said he went to work for Keystone/Mercy Health Plan in 1975, in the shipping department.

Score a quarter-point for TransUnion here. Biondo "does work for Keystone/Mercy - as a Web developer. But Keystone/Mercy doesn't have a shipping department, and didn't even exist in 1975. Plus, there's that small matter of Biondo's age.

The errors in his biography weren't the worst parts, though. The worst parts were the mistaken bits of derogatory information - reports of late payments and defaults to more than a dozen creditors, and even a personal-bankruptcy filing in 2002.

No, scratch that. The worst part was what happened next.

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Shocked though he was, Biondo assumed that the whole thing was a simple mistake - that TransUnion had confused him with someone with a similar name. There was even an address, elsewhere in Pennsylvania, for the other guy. Surely this could be easily set right.

Alas, it wasn't.

Biondo's first attempt to dispute the data brought a hollow victory. TransUnion removed references to 15 accounts that didn't belong to him. But it insisted that two remain, including the bankruptcy.

Increasingly frustrated, Biondo demanded a reinvestigation.

Again, TransUnion's response was terse and disturbing. The company removed one other lingering error - an MBNA account that had been written off as bad debt, presumably for his alternate-universe twin.

But about the bankruptcy, all TransUnion said was: "Verified, no change."

It's one thing to make a mistake. It's quite another to insist you were right once it's been pointed out. Except for the occasional politician, most of us prefer to admit we goofed.

Biondo called again to complain. "I said, `How can you verify something that I know is not mine?' "

The answer, TransUnion told him, was that it had been checked at the source: the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

So Biondo checked there himself, calling and asking a clerk to look up the docket number listed on his credit report. She did, then asked the last four digits of his Social Security number. They weren't even close.

By then it was April, and Biondo was tiring of his Kafkaesque fight. But this time, when he called TransUnion to report his findings, he finally seemed to get past the wall of denial.

TransUnion told Biondo the error would be fixed. A week later, he received a new credit report without the black mark he'd never deserved.

Biondo was hardly mollified. He hasn't yet decided whether to sue TransUnion for damages, but he filed a complaint with Pennsylvania's Bureau of Consumer Protection and is eager to spread the word about the credit-reporting system's shortcomings.

He wants to warn other consumers about the need to check reports regularly and dispute errors. As his case illustrates, they can be far more extensive than you might imagine, even if you're not a victim of identity theft.

The failure Biondo encountered is called a "mixed-file" error, which occurs when one person's credit records are misattributed to someone else.

TransUnion and the other credit agencies say such mistakes are rare, given the massive volume of data they process. But consumer advocates say mixed files are more common than the credit bureaus admit.

"They use sloppy matching software," says Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Social Security numbers don't have to match, nor do names. ... They routinely take an `M. Smith' and say it's Michael Smith when it's really Mark Smith."

Mierzwinski says that to minimize one problem - that of creditors missing negative information before making a loan, perhaps because of a typo on a form - the credit agencies must accept a higher risk that derogatory information will be wrongly spread.

Compounding the problem is what happens when consumers identify errors. "We think the reinvestigations are often cursory," Mierzwinski says.

Biondo adds that it would be simple for software to flag glaring inconsistencies like those that appeared on his report and bounce it to a human for review.

Simple, but more expensive. Which is one reason not to expect it to happen anytime soon.

For now, all you can do is check your credit reports regularly, report any errors, and demand they be fixed.

For information on your rights, go to

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