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Mixed credit files: How to avoid them, fix them

Every Jr., Sr. and Smith beware: People with similar or common names are at risk

By

Speaking of Credit
Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno
Barry Paperno is a freelance writer and credit scoring expert with decades of consumer credit industry experience, serving as consumer affairs manager for FICO (formerly Fair Isaac Corp.) and consumer operations manager for Experian. He writes "Speaking of Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about credit scoring and rebuilding credit, for CreditCards.com. His writings about credit scoring have appeared in The Huffington Post, MSN Money, CBS Money Watch and other consumer finance websites.
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Question

Dear Speaking of Credit
I noticed when I was added to my spouse's credit card as an authorized user, information such as my Social Security number was not requested. How does my spouse's credit card history appear on my credit reports without pertinent info such as my Social Security number not being asked of me? Thank you. – Rey

Answer

Dear Rey,
As you have learned, it doesn’t take very much identifying information for an account to appear on your credit report. It has happened to you as an authorized user, and it happens to many others. In your case, it’s benign. You wanted to be added as an authorized user, and without fuss, it happened. But for others, it’s a big problem.

How do mixed credit files occur?
Collection agency debts and public records (tax liens, court judgments, bankruptcy filings) are notorious for reporting only minimal identifying information – name and address – when they furnish data to the credit bureaus. They do not include unique identifiers such as Social Security number, date of birth and previous addresses. What can result is a credit report mashup: One person’s information is added to someone else’s credit report. This is known as a “mixed credit file,” and it’s among the most troublesome of credit reporting errors.

In your situation, the credit card company had all it needed to add the account to your credit report once it received your name as part of your wife’s request to add you as an authorized user. That and her billing address might have been the minimum needed to report the card in your name.

Collections and public records are another story, as they frequently arrive at the credit bureau with nothing more than a name and address as identifiers. And in the case of an old debt, the address may no longer be accurate. Unsurprisingly then, these are the types of credit report items most commonly applied to the wrong consumer’s credit report.

Every Jr., Sr. and Smith, beware!
When only the name and address are used to connect credit information with a person’s file at the bureau, those with common names and family members sharing a name, such as Sr., Jr. or III, are most vulnerable to mixed files. When they also share a current or previous address, problems can escalate.

Here’s how a mixed file works: When John Smith Sr. and John Smith Jr. share a current or previous address and these are the only pieces of identifying information connected to certain credit information, the credit bureaus may mistakenly consider these two consumers as the same person.

This occurs largely due to the matching criteria at the bureaus not requiring a perfect match before assigning credit information to an individual’s credit file. Just the matching of the first few letters or numbers of a piece of information is all it takes to determine where the information goes.

As a result of this less-than-perfect matching criteria, John Smith at 123 Elm St. could see credit information belonging to Johann Smithereen at 12345 Elmore St. on his credit report when names and addresses are the only identifiers.

What to do to prevent a mixed file
If you have a relatively common name, and especially if you have the same or similar name as a family member with whom you have lived, there are preventive steps that can ensure the information in your credit file remains yours and yours alone:

  • When applying for credit, always include your full middle name and, if applicable, generation (Jr., Sr., III).
  • If you have a current address in common with a family member having the same or a similar name, include any unique previous addresses in credit applications.
  • Contact any of your existing creditors that may not have all of your identifying information, requesting they include your middle name, generation, and, if not already on file, your Social Security number and date of birth.

Fixing a mixed file
Have you been denied credit due to information on your credit report that doesn’t belong to you? Or perhaps you pulled your own credit report and found information belonging to a family member with a similar or the same name, or someone you don’t know? There are some steps you can take to fix the error and prevent additional file mixing:

  • Provide the bureau with any documentation showing a mixed file, such as a credit report, highlighting the information not belonging to you.
  • Along with documentation of the mixed credit file, include a letter to the bureau that lists as much identifying information about you and, to the extent possible, the person with whom your file was mixed, such as full name, address(es), Social Security number and date of birth.
  • After separating a mixed file, the bureau will notify you of the resolution and place indicators in the affected credit files to prevent future occurrences.

Some recent improvements
Following decades of credit bureaus only requiring a name and address as identifying information, a few small-but-welcome changes have come about in recent years as components of the National Consumer Assistance Plan, agreed to by the credit bureaus and 31 state attorneys general in 2015.

The plan improves collection and authorized user account reporting, by, among other things:

  • Including original creditor information in the reporting of collections. More identifying information means less chance of mixed files.
  • Eliminating the reporting of debts that don’t result from a contract or agreement entered into by a consumer – traffic tickets and library fines, for example. Such collections are among the most likely to be reported without a Social Security number or other piece of unique identifying information.
  • Requiring that credit card issuers obtain an authorized user’s date of birth. When added to the name and address, this additional piece of data can go a long way toward preventing mixed files.

According to the website set up by the credit bureaus to inform consumers about the plan, it will be phased in over three years, with full implementation in March 2018. Since you were not asked for your date of birth when submitting your request to become an authorized user, implementation is obviously not complete.

Another positive development for the accurate reporting of authorized users’ credit in all states is the trend by card companies to require an authorized user’s Social Security number. This is a voluntary move by card lenders that apparently has not been adopted by your wife’s card issuer.

Of course, there’s one way to know for sure if your authorized user card is being reported. Pull your credit reports from www.AnnualCreditReport.com, where each bureau report is free to all consumers once per year. Otherwise there’s a charge that could be well worth the money. If you find the account is missing from any of your reports and it’s been more than 30-60 days since being added as an authorized user, you or your wife should contact the card company.

See related: How to dispute and fix credit report errors

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Published: November 24, 2016


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Updated: 12-03-2016


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