Little-known specialized bureaus have dossiers of important data, and you can often get their file on you for free
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What you may not know is that smaller, specialty reporting agencies are tracking you as well — and a new push is on to help you find and obtain a free copy of their reports, too.
We’re talking to you, big-time casino gambler. How quickly did you pay back the marker when you borrowed from a casino? A company called Certegy keeps track of that.
Hot air balloonists, rodeo clowns and competitive skiers need to pay heed, too. Your hazardous avocations probably require extra insurance, which landed you in the files of MIB Inc.
Everyday financial activities go into specialty credit reporting agencies’ files, too. If you’ve ever submitted an insurance claim, rented an apartment or borrowed from a payday lender, those activities likely generated files with one or more specialized agency.
And they matter.
“One of my colleagues called them ‘dossiers that can determine your future,'” says Consumer Action spokeswoman Linda Sherry. Many people are alarmed when they learn of the existence of consumer specialty reports and want to know how the information is affecting them, she says.
A lot of specialty reporting agencies cover the “kinds of services that are, in many cases, essential for consumers, so it’s important for consumers to know about them,” says Susan Grant, consumer protection and privacy director at the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s important for consumers to be able to dispute information if they think it’s wrong or at least have some way of explaining if something wasn’t their fault.”
There’s a challenge with the specialty agencies, though: finding them. While consumers can easily obtain their general credit data from the “big three” credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — by clicking on the industry sponsored annualcreditreport.com website, no such centralized portal exists for those trying to find out what consumer data the many specialty reporting companies might maintain on them.
Consumer advocates in and outside government, however, are trying to help people get their hands on this important information.
That task was made easier in May, when the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced it had posted a 25-page list of about 50 consumer reporting agencies and their contact information. The bureau encourages consumers to check their information for accuracy, especially prior to applying for a job or an apartment. Most companies on the list provide free reports. The list isn’t all-inclusive and might include companies not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the CFPB says.
Consumer Action also has published a directory of specialty consumer reporting agencies.
Your right to review
Whatever their purpose, specialty consumer reports may contain errors, and under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have a right to review the information, request that agencies correct any mistakes and explain any problems. If you have been denied insurance coverage or an apartment or otherwise harmed because of this data, you have a right to see the report; consumers also may request a copy of each specialty report once a year.
If you were applying for an apartment, you might want to check with some of the agencies that do these reports prior to filing your applications so you can make sure there weren’t any mistakes.
|— Paul Stephens|
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
The law covers consumer reporting agencies that collect and provide information related to medical records and payments, check writing, employment history and insurance claims, among other records, but doesn’t govern ordinary data brokers, consumer advocates say. That means consumers aren’t legally entitled to know what information data brokers maintain on them.
The agencies supply consumer reports and scores to lenders, landlords, financial institutions, retailers, debt buyers, insurers, utilities and casinos that extend credit to customers, the CFPB says, noting that not every agency has a report on every consumer. Depending on circumstances, the reporting agencies have 30 or 45 days to investigate disputes of their records and another five business days to send consumers the results, the CFPB says.
Consumer advocates don’t necessarily advise you ask for copies of all the specialty reports that companies may have on you. Instead they advise you seek reports from relevant agencies before you take a big step where your history, or inaccurate information, might gum up the works, or after you’ve been unfavorably affected by a report.
“Our recommendation would be, if you were applying for an apartment, you might want to check with some of the agencies that do these reports prior to filing your applications so you can make sure there weren’t any mistakes” that would cause a landlord to deny you, said Paul Stephens, policy and advocacy director for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “A lot of times there may be data entry errors, clerical errors, that cause data to be associated with the wrong individual.”
Agencies covered by the FCRA must establish toll-free numbers for requesting reports and provide free annual disclosure of consumer files on request, according to the CFPB, which can enforce company compliance with the law. The law requires reporting agencies to establish a “streamlined process” for consumers to obtain files. If there’s a problem with one of your specialty reports, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.
Common specialty reports
Specialty reports are most commonly generated when you apply for insurance, for bank accounts or a job.
- Insurance: If you’re looking for new homeowner’s or automobile insurance, the group recommends ordering from LexisNexis Risk Solutions a copy of your C.L.U.E. personal-property or auto reports, which include information on insurance claims filed in the past seven years. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recommends that you check your A-PLUS property-claims file with Verisk Analytics’ Insurance Services Office subsidiary.
Check your MIB Inc. report, which contains information on medical diagnoses and status, and correct any errors before applying for individual life, long-term care or disability insurance, the Clearinghouse advises.
- Bank accounts: If you’ve had problems with a banking account or someone has fraudulently used your account, order reports on banking and check-writing history, the group recommends. Among the companies collecting this information are ChexSystems, which will provide a free report every 12 months on request, and TeleCheck Services Inc., which will do the same, according to the CFPB.
Consumers might have had a bank account closed because they abused the account themselves, “but they could be innocent victims of something,” such as a counterfeit-check scam, said the Consumer Federation’s Grant.”They’re innocent victims but their accounts might be closed and they might end up in a specialty report as being a checking account abuser,” she says. ChexSystems created a code for financial institutions to distinguish that outside fraud caused an account to be closed. She urges financial institutions not to close accounts because of fake check scams. “It unfairly labels consumer as a miscreant when I don’t think the consumer should be treated that way.”
- Job screening: If an employer asks to run a background check on you, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says to ask the business to provide the name of the screening company. “Contact the company as soon as the report has been issued because screening companies may not maintain permanent files,” the group says. Similarly, ask a potential landlord to provide the name of his or her tenant screening company so you’ll know where to request your free annual report, the PRC says.
The Work Number, which verifies employment and income data and is part of Equifax, will supply a free annual report on request, according to the CFPB.
Check all, or nothing
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recommends requesting “all available reports” if someone has stolen your identity. If you want a “good overall ‘checkup,'” the group says, order your LexisNexis Full File Disclosure.
Consumer Action notes that other than certain circumstances, ordering reports may not be worth the trouble.
“Our staff members found the amount of personal information one must divulge to request reports may not be worth the time and effort it takes, given that in many cases there is nothing on file,” the group said last fall as it issued an insider’s guide to specialty consumer reports. “More concerning: Consumers add — and verify — more details about themselves in databases when they order these reports.”