Looking to disappear? Deleting your credit history is far from easy
You can't really get off the grid, and you probably don't want to
Credit Score Report
Dear Credit Score Report,
This may sound bizarre, but is there any way to have your credit reports expunged from the credit bureaus? I'd like to go "off the grid," so to speak, and am wondering what steps to take to delete my information from the major credit bureaus. Can I pursue legal action to have this information deleted or will the bureaus remove it at my request? -- Natasha
Once you get into the U.S. credit system, it's nearly impossible to have your information removed.
As you are probably aware, Natasha, borrower data is typically reported to the credit bureaus the first time someone takes out a loan or gets a credit card. That's because banks and other lenders share your payment information with the credit bureaus, which maintain credit reports that contain payment history information. Other banks, in turn, consider that information when making their own lending decisions. The difficulty for someone in your situation is that the credit bureaus cannot completely delete your personal information -- and there aren't any laws that can help you.
|GET OFF THE GRID? GOOD LUCK|
The Federal Trade Commission has prepared a chart illustrating how every person in America is surrounded by a vast number of data collectors who turn that data to their own uses, and in the process allow others to see it, too. Going invisible by, for example, opting out of the credit reporting system, has become nigh on impossible.
"There's no real right to disappear. There are no laws that give you an avenue to do that," says Rebecca E. Kuehn, assistant director with the Federal Trade Commission's division of privacy and identity protection.
Although there aren't any laws on your side, experts say there are two possible ways to erase a portion of your existing credit history, provided you are a borrower in good standing:
- Close or stop using your credit accounts.
- Ask your bank to stop supplying information to the credit bureaus.
Under the first option, you pay off all outstanding balances (including credit cards, bank loans, mortgages and car loans) and stop using (or close) all your accounts. Once accounts are closed or inactive, banks may stop reporting them to the credit bureaus. Chase, for example, says it stops reporting on accounts after they are purged from the bank's system. Chase says a purge happens three months after an account is closed with a zero balance. Alternately, after an open card with a zero balance expires or is not reissued due to inactivity, a purge may take place within three months of that card's expiration date.
Lay low to reduce credit profile
While that process takes place, you avoid using credit or opening any accounts -- and you wait, possibly for years, as the old data from those accounts remains on your credit report. Eventually, though, the bureau may remove it from your credit history. "Closed accounts with no negative history are deleted 10 years from the date they are reported closed," says Rod Griffin, director of public education with credit bureau Experian. That's the reason U.S. consumers who move abroad may discover years later they no longer have a U.S. credit history.
If you don't owe your bank any money, you could also ask if it will stop reporting your information to the bureaus. "First and foremost, bureaus are concerned with keeping big creditors happy. They put on the report what big creditors tell them to put on" the credit report, says Evan Hendricks, publisher of the "Privacy Times" newsletter.
While the prospect is certainly appealing, a consumer's credit report in its entirety cannot be expunged to allow for a 'fresh start.'
|-- Steve Katz
But be aware, Natasha, that neither of these options are foolproof. That's because the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which governs what information bureaus can provide to third parties, doesn't address how long that information needs to be retained or when it should be deleted. That leaves it up to the bureaus to erase any credit history from your file -- something they may not do. "While the prospect is certainly appealing, a consumer's credit report in its entirety cannot be expunged to allow for a 'fresh start,'" says Steve Katz, spokesman for credit bureau TransUnion.
As for that second tip, your bank may find it difficult to stop supplying that data. While the credit reporting system is voluntary, Experian says that since lenders rely on each other to supply complete and accurate information, the system would no longer work correctly if businesses simply removed information at the borrower's request. "Further, any business that reports information is obligated by law and by membership agreements with the credit reporting companies to report accurate account information," Griffin says. "A pattern of removing accurate information could violate those membership agreements and perhaps federal law."
Therefore, if your goal is to remove all traces of your past, you are probably out of luck. Your personal data will continue to live on at companies -- including side businesses of those same credit bureaus -- that collect consumer data (such as auto insurance, employment history, bank accounts and medical information) and may not be governed by the FCRA. "It's one thing to opt out of the credit reporting system, it's another thing to opt of the whole world," the FTC's Kuehn says.
Consumers who have attempted to erase their personal history know how difficult it can be. Wired magazine writer Evan Ratliff, who recently chronicled his unsuccessful attempt to vanish in the digital age, previously investigated what personal data was held in a wide variety of marketing and other databases. "I discovered that, at least at the time, not only did they not have to expunge my information if I asked -- they didn't even have to tell me what was in there about ME," Ratliff says in an e-mail.
If your decision to try to erase your credit history is based on concern about having your personal information accessed by third parties, experts say you'd be much better served by opting out of credit and insurance offers or placing a credit freeze on your report.
You may decide that with your personal information already out there and a credit history offering real benefits -- everything from borrowing money and gaining employment to getting a cell phone and utility service -- you have good reason to keep your information alive. "Killing your credit report entirely would give you the worst of both worlds," says privacy and information policy consultant Robert Gellman. "It would severely limit your access to major elements of modern life, but your data would still be available for marketing and other uses."
See related: How to cancel a credit card, How to opt out of mail, e-mail and telemarketing solicitations, Credit checks for job applicants become more common, Getting a cell phone? Mind that other number: your credit score
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Updated: February 2, 2010
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