Check Your Credit Score Today – Here’s Why!
Every time you pay a bill or apply for credit, your data gets sent to a credit agency. Someone could make a mistake and put an error on your credit report. Or worse, someone could have stolen your identity or your credit information and be using your credit without you knowing. These are just some of the reasons you should check your credit score.
See The Danger of Errors on Your Credit Report with Steve Baker for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Steve Baker is the chairman of the Privacy Rights Institute. He started there after retiring from the Federal Trade Commission, where he worked for nearly thirty years running the FTC’s Midwest branch and addressing consumer fraud. Since retiring, he has also done in-depth studies for the Better Business Bureau on common scams and fraud. He also writes the Baker Fraud Report, a weekly newsletter reporting on scams and fraud that has subscribers around the world.
Steve has no dramatic story about why he started working on fraud. He’s been interested in fraud and scams since he learned about the field. He is intrigued by questions of how it works, who’s behind it, and how it works across national borders. It’s an area that needs attention, and there’s always something more for him to learn.
[Fraud] is a subject that is eminently practical because we’re all being bombarded every day with spam, text message scams, and bogus websites, and we all need to watch out. It affects everybody.Steve Baker
The American Credit System
The goal of the Privacy Rights Institute is to educate people on their rights with regards to credit reporting and help them understand what’s really happening with their information. Many people are concerned about “big data.” They have the idea that shadowy data brokers are out there gathering information about them. But the info is already gathered, and it has been for a while. It’s all in your credit report.
I don’t think people realize just how extensive this is, because every time you pay a bill, apply for a loan, or use your credit card, all that information gets reported to one of the big three credit reporting agencies, and they compile it in their credit report.Steve Baker
All someone needs to do to see what we’re doing – and in many cases, make decisions that affect our lives – is access our credit reports. If Steve wanted to rent an apartment, they wouldn’t just send him a lease. First, they’d pull his credit report. With that report, they can see if he pays his bills on time, has filed for bankruptcy, has any judgments against him, and all sorts of other data. Then they use that to decide if they want to let him sign a lease.
Your credit report information is available with just a few keystrokes to anyone in the United States who rents apartments. You may not even know they’re viewing your report. And if you don’t check your credit score regularly, you may not know what information is in there.
The Information in Your Credit Report
People and companies who provide information on you to the credit agencies are called “furnishers.” Anyone you pay a bill to can be a furniture, whether that’s your credit card, your mortgage, other credit like a personal one, or Joe’s Furniture down the street where you bought your couch. If you’ve ever had something like a bankruptcy or a judgment against you, those things are public record. All of that information is going into your credit report.
The credit reporting agencies’ business is collecting that information about you and then selling it. In many ways, it’s a good system. In the United States, you can walk into a car dealership, buy a car, finance it, and drive it away, and all you need to brink is your ID. That’s because they have your credit report. The dealership can see what’s in it and make a pretty good judgment about whether you can make the payments. And you don’t have to bring stacks of financial documents to purchase a car.
When Credit Reports Go Wrong
There’s a lot that can go wrong with credit reports.Steve Baker
One of the downsides of the credit system is that all that information can be difficult to compile. The credit reporting agencies receive billions of pieces of data from hundreds of thousands of companies in a variety of different forms. Errors can and do happen. If you don’t check your credit score and report regularly, they can stay on your report. And some errors can cause a lot of problems.
Data Mix-Up Errors
One kind of error in your credit report is a simple one: Someone else’s data got mixed up with yours. Perhaps there are two Steve Bakers living in the same apartment complex. The names are the same and the addresses are similar. It’s very easy for someone to accidentally mix up the files. The agencies try to use social security numbers to keep the files separate, but not every purchase requires you to provide it.
The person sending the information from the furnisher to the credit reporting agency could make a mistake or report something inaccurately. Apple, for instance, had an issue a few years ago where they listed the job title of all former employees as “Associate.” Potential employers doing credit checks or employment verification saw the title of “Associate” and assumed that even though this person claimed they did such-and-such, they were just an associate so they must not have been all that important. There was actually a lawsuit about that one.
Sometimes the data that the furnisher sends to the credit reporting agency just isn’t accurate. Furnishers are supposed to get permission from you before they send any data, but not all of them do. Or sometimes they put the permission as part of the fine print. Unless you’re the type who carefully reads the Terms of Service, you may not realize what permissions you’re signing over.
The problem is that you don’t even know what they’re reporting about you.Steve Baker
When every car dealership has a terminal that lets them view credit reports with a few clicks, what’s to keep them from checking out the credit report of someone they know or pulling a report inappropriately? It’s a crime to do that, but many people don’t realize that. Unauthorized access of credit reports can lead to identity theft. Last time Steve checked, unauthorized access to credit reports that resulted in identity theft was the tip source of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.
Like other companies, credit reporting agencies aren’t immune to data breaches. In the much-publicized Equifax breach, hackers got information on 150 million customers. Experian has had a few incidents as well. Hackers are desperate for this information. With the information contained in your credit report, they can steal your identity, apply for a credit card in your name, or even take out a mortgage on your house.
There’s a worldwide network of crooks out there that are working every day just to get your information. It’s worth a lot of money.Steve Baker
Employment verification reports are done through the same agencies as credit reports. They get your employment data and they sell it. If someone just wants to verify your employment and salary, it’s cheaper than buying the full credit report.
Researchers have been exploring this. Equifax buys data from over half of the employers in the country, and they can just sell it. They claim they segregate that information from full credit reports, but nobody can tell if that’s really true. And many people don’t know their company sold their data to Equifax.
There are alternatives, though. One is a secure “lockbox.” Your employer loads your employment information and salary into the lockbox. You can see what’s in there, but you can’t modify it. They give you the key, and you can share the key to that lockbox with potential employers who want to verify your employment. You know it’s there and you get to decide who you want to share it with.
Steve would love to see a similar option for credit reports. People are more aware now of how their data can be used to affect their lives. We also are starting to want to take control of our data and know what’s out there and who has access. Having an option where we control our own credit reports and who can access them would help us understand what’s happening with our data and know exactly what data is out there for people to access.
Consumers Aren’t the Customer
We as consumers are not the credit reporting agencies’ customers. They collect our data and then sell it to people making decisions about our lives. Their customer service is bad across the board. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulates banks and credit card companies. Over half of the complaints to them are about the credit reporting agencies.
The agencies blame credit repair companies for their long history of bad customer service. They claim they’re just tired of dealing with frivolous disputes. But Steve has seen this before. When he worked for the FTC, he would sometimes investigate companies for practices like false Made-in-USA claims. He would ask them for copies of customer complaints, and they would say they hadn’t received any. But once they got to court, Steve would find they had thousands of complaints – they just didn’t pay attention. Many companies don’t pay attention to their complaint systems until they are forced to.
We need more consumer-friendly business models and more control of our own data. But laws without enforcement are useless. California has some of the most stringent credit repair laws in the country, but they don’t enforce it. In the past ten years, lawsuits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act have tripled. Most of us have heard that you need to check your credit score. But more of us are looking at our reports, seeing errors, and fighting to get them fixed.
Check Your Credit Score and Fix Errors
How to Check Your Credit Score
By law, you can check your credit score with a free copy of your credit report once per year. Since there are three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – you can check your credit score with a free credit report once every four months. Due to the pandemic, though, you are able to get a free copy every week until December 2023.
You should only check your credit score on AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s run by the FTC, and you can get all three reports from that one site. Do not go to any other alternatives. The FTC recently sued one company because they offered a “free credit report” that was really a subscription and tried to push other products and services you don’t actually need. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only federally authorized site.
Once you have your credit report, look at it. Check your credit score and check every bit of information that is on that report. If something on there is wrong, report it.
How to Fix Errors on Your Credit Report
If you check your credit score and find an error in the report, you can report it directly to the credit reporting agency. You may be surprised at how many mistakes there are!
Each agency has information about the dispute process on their website, and the FTC has information on disputing errors for all three agencies. When you report an inaccuracy to one agency, they are supposed to share it with the other two. It makes the whole process a little easier. If the agency won’t help you, report it to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Look At Your Bills
It’s important to check your credit score and credit report, but it’s also important to look at your bills. Your credit card bill and phone bill are especially noteworthy. Many people don’t look at these bills and are astonished at what they’re being charged for.
For a while, phone companies allowed third parties to bill for things on the phone bill, a practice called “slamming.” You wouldn’t even know the charge was there if you didn’t look. One attorney that Steve worked with at the FTC had been paying twenty dollars a month for a year for something on her phone bill and had no idea.
Beware of Credit Repair
If you’ve had credit issues in the past, or you check your credit score and the information is accurate but bad, you’ll probably want it get it fixed as fast as possible. Bad stuff can hang around on your report for seven years, or ten years for bankruptcies, but creditors mostly care about the last year or two. Most people can become credit-worthy again fairly quickly.
You’ve probably seen ads for credit repair companies on TV or on the radio. They claim if you have bad credit, they can fix it. Steve sued hundreds of those companies when he was at the FTC. Why? Because they can’t actually fix your credit.
What credit repair companies actually do is challenge every single bit of information on your credit report, whether it’s incorrect or not. Agencies have to take challenged information off the report temporarily while they re-verify. Since the credit repair company doesn’t actually have proof the negative mark is an error, it’s not a fix. The information will go right back on the report later.
What these [credit repair companies] do is just write letters challenging all the information on the credit report. They can’t fix your credit.Steve Baker
A federal law, the Credit Repair Organizations Act, prohibits them from taking money from you. Legally, you don’t have to pay them unless they achieve results. But all of them violate it and take their money in advance. None of them can really fix your credit, so if they didn’t break the law and ask to be paid up front, they’d never get paid.
If you fall victim to a credit repair company, report it. The FTC mostly does civil cases, but there have been some criminal cases now. Reporting it can help stop it from happening.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that it’s essential to check your credit score, review your report, know what’s in there, and fix any errors. And it’s not necessarily hard. You can get reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. Get your report and look at it. And if you’ve been ripped off, don’t feel ashamed and keep it to yourself. Speak out and tell law enforcement. We can’t stop fraud if we don’t know it’s happening.
Keeping an eye on your credit, particularly your credit reports, knowing what’s in there, and making sure there aren’t any errors is something we all need to do.Steve Baker
- Easy Prey Podcast
- General Topics
- Home Computing
- IP Addresses
- Online Privacy
- Online Safety
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