Account Number Morphing – Still Another Barrier to Accurate Credit Reporting
By Robert F. Brennan
The Federal Credit Reporting Act [“FCRA”] makes it mandatory for Credit Reporting Agencies such as Experian, Equifax and Trans Union “to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information in the [consumer’s credit] report….” A willful and negligent failure to do so is violation number 1 of the FCRA. One wonders then when in fact it turns out that certain Credit Reporting Agency [“CRA”] procedures, or lack thereof, assure maximum possible inaccuracy of information in the consumer’s credit report. Are we to take it that the words of a federal law mean exactly the opposite of what they say? Legally, philosophically, morally, one would think not.
A “trade line” on your credit report provides certain standard items of information about an account you have, such as the name of the company (say a department store, for example), the company’s address, the account number, the current balance on the account, the terms of the credit, and so forth. Any of this information could in fact turn out to be incorrect, but the item on information we will address in this article is that definite and critical identifier for the CRAs, the account number.
One would think that such a mundane piece of information as an account number couldn’t possible cause that much trouble, and in a sense that is true. What actually causes the problem is when the account number for the same account gets changed, and sometimes morphed repeatedly, so that the identity of the actual account is greatly obscured. When this is allowed to happen, the CRAs’ super computers, employing simple logic but lacking intelligence, assume that an account is the same, or a match, when it has the same account number, and that it is different when it does not. Therein can lie the source of much headache, aggravation and damages for a consumer, and much denial of responsibility from the CRAs.
An example would be helpful here to illustrate. Let us say the Consumer A is receiving bills for a $600.00 balance on a department store credit card. Consumer A never applied for such a card and therefore the debt cannot be his. He suspects someone stole his identity and opened the account using his social security number and other private information. After numerous phone calls and letters back and forth, the department store agrees that it is not Consumer A’s debt after all and tells Consumer A not to worry about it, that they’ll “take care of it”. Naturally, Consumer A is now relieved and assumes it will ve “taken care of”, i.e., they will stop billing him for the invalid debt and it will be deleted from his credit report. The account number, by the way – let us say it is 1234567890 and that is the way the CRAs are reporting it on Consumer A’s credit reports. Consumer A notifies the CRAs by certified mail of the situation, along with documentation, and they all delete the previously reported trade line within a month.
About four months ago by and Consumer A is dismayed to receive in the mail a letter from a Debt Collection Company named “Pit Bull”. Pit Bull, in its letter, states that it is collecting a debt on behalf of the department store (the same on that earlier told Consumer A not to worry about it, that they would take care of it and delete it from his credit report.) Pit Bull shows the debt now as $850.00, having tacked on a $50.00 penalty and a $200.00 “default charge” or attorney’s fees), but informs Consumer A that, although he owes immediately the full amount of $850.00, they will take $450.00 as a full payment. They can’t guarantee Consumer A that the department store will reinstate him in good graces vis-à-vis his credit card (the one that was never his in the first pace) but if he pays them the $450.00 at least they will stop dunning him. The account number of the letter is now 123DEPTSTRE890. A few months later Pit Bull furnishes the account 1234567890 as 123DEPTSTRE890 to the CRAs, showing the account as a “charge off”, amount $850.00, and a note that the trade line will be reported for the next seven years!
Consumer A is now distraught. He calls the department store and reiterates his story that the department store had earlier investigated, agreed with him that he did not owe the debt and that “they would take care of it” for him. These words come back to haunt Consumer A as the representative now tells him that they are sorry, the account is now with collections, and that they cannot interfere as it is now out of their hands. Consumer A also tried to clarify the satiation with Put Bull but, other than being cursed at and told to “pay the damn bill”, he gets nowhere. He disputes with the CRAs with certified letters, giving a full account of the situation and a statement that he categorically does not, and never did, owe the debt. Two of the three CRAs shortly thereafter delete the trade line from Consumer A’s report, but one of them does not. That one informs our consumer that they checked with the furnisher (Pit Bull) and the furnisher “verified” with them that the information they provided on the debt was valid.
Some more months pass and Consumer A starts feeling frantic. He tries to get refinancing on his home but is told he’ll have to clear up the derogatory trade line showing on one of his credit reports as a first step. He is also denied credit on a couple occasions which he suspects resulted from the same derogatory reporting.
Consumer A starts religiously checking his credit report, and discovers that now the account is being furnished by another collection company, Viper Inc., and the account number has changed again, this time to “732******”. Our consumer becomes by this point very discouraged. He tried communication with Viper In., but they are just as nasty and, if anything, more venomous than Pit Bull.
At this point Consumer A finds an attorney firm that will take his case and initiate a lawsuit on his behalf. Among other things, the Complaint accuses the remaining CRA of a “reinsertion violation”. What the CRA had done in this example was “willfully and negligently violated the reinsertion requirements of 15 U.S.C. Section 1681i(a)(5)(B) in reinserting derogatory information into plaintiff’s credit report after he had previously disputed it, without certification or notice.” (Even though the account number kept changing, it was still the same account being referred to all along. The CRA in question deleted, the reinserted the same account without notifying Consumer A, a no-no.)
After the account is deleted and then reinserted, the CRA fails to notify Consumer A within 5 business days that they are re-inserting the account information. The ironic twist to all this is that the CRA then argues that the “reinsertion” of the account was not their fault because it had a different account number, and how are they supposed to know that it was the same account?
How, indeed! It was the CRA’s own regulations, or lack thereof, that allowed the reinsertion to occur. The CRA argues that if they had known it was the same account then they wouldn’t have reinserted it, and yet the CRA is the one who allowed Pit Bull, and Viper Inc., and whichever entities came afterwards, to keep changing the account number on the same account; in short, in effectively disguising it from the CRA’s computer which only matches identities, not similarities or differences.
It is bad enough that the CRAs frequently take the word of disreputable or highly questionable collection entities over that of disputing consumers; but it is unconscionable that the CRAs allow collection entities to in effect cloak the identity of accounts even from themselves, the CRAs, and then blame it on the same system that they helped create! This bungling would be laughable if it didn’t happen to cause consumers so much financial hardship, as well as frustration and emotional pain.
Robert F. Brennan