Discover and correct what Big Data says about you

I thought I knew all about the information consumer reporting agencies collected about me. Then I discovered The Work Number – a database that reports every paycheck I received from my company, with net and gross amounts, dating back to my hire date six years ago.

Another consumer reporting agency shows the results of a 2016 echocardiogram. (That was normal.) Yet another tracks insurance claims on my home and car. If I had made too many returns at retail stores or bounced a check at a casino, this could also show up in a database.

“Any data point that someone can track, there will be a bureau or someone collecting information and selling that information,” says Matthew Loker, a consumer protection attorney in Arroyo Grande, Calif.


Unfortunately, not all information provided is accurate and errors can have serious consequences. Loker says one of her clients lost a lucrative job offer because a job-selection firm mistook her for a drug dealer. At the time the error was corrected, the position was filled. Others have been denied insurance, apartments, bank accounts and government benefits due to database errors.

But discovering and correcting errors is no small task.

DOZENS OF COMPANIES FOLLOWED US

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau maintains a list of consumer reporting agencies which currently runs to 38 pages. In addition to the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – the list includes 22 employment screeners, 10 tenant screeners, six check and bank screeners, four credit reporting agencies insurance and two medical information companies, among others.

Verifying all of these reports would be a monumental task, says consumer advocate Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Even narrowing the options to the agency most likely to have relevant information can be difficult, Wu says.

“Let’s say you’re applying for an apartment,” Wu says. “There are all these companies and you don’t know which one your landlord is going to use.”

You can ask the potential landlord, of course, but by the time you spot and correct an error in the report, that apartment may have been rented out for a long time.

CHOOSE YOUR TARGETS

Privacy advocate Evan Hendricks recommends you start by targeting some of the larger databases. For tenant selection, this could include RealPage or TransUnion SmartMove.

One of the largest consumer data aggregators is LexisNexis, which provides various types of background checks. The report you receive can be hundreds of pages, detailing everything from traffic tickets and concealed weapons licenses to the amount of every mortgage you’ve ever had, bankruptcies, tax liens, evictions and criminal records. LexisNexis also operates the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, which collects and reports automobile and personal property claims. You can request your full report at https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer.

If you’re employed, check out The Work Number, which is owned by Equifax and has up-to-date payroll data for over 136 million jobs. If your salary information is there — and it probably is — you’ll also see which companies and government agencies have checked it recently.

Government agencies also consult The Work Number files to combat unemployment fraud and determine eligibility for public benefits, among other uses. That alone is a good reason to check your file for errors, says Wu.

“People have been expelled or risked being expelled from benefits or charged with overpayment because of The Work Number,” Wu says.

Ask for your ChexSystems report if you are considering opening a new bank account or have had issues with a previous account, such as not paying overdraft fees or bouncing a check.

If you are considering purchasing individual life, health, long-term care, or disability insurance, request your files from MIB and Milliman IntelliScript. MIB collects medical condition information, while Milliman IntelliScript collects prescription drug purchase history.

WHAT TO DO ONCE YOU HAVE YOUR REPORTS

You usually don’t have to pay to request your data, but you may have to wait to get it. Some companies let you view your files online, but many require you to submit a form or call a toll-free number to request a report. A business has 15 days to respond once it receives your request, says the CFPB.

If you find any errors, follow the company’s dispute process. If you are unable to resolve the problem, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.

A few companies — including the credit bureaus, RealPage, LexisNexis, ChexSystems, and The Work Number — offer you the ability to freeze your reports. This usually prevents companies from accessing your data without your permission. Freezes can be hassle since you’ll need to keep track of a password or PIN, and a freeze could slow down credit or other apps. The trade-off is more privacy.

Speaking of credit bureaus: you currently get free weekly access to your credit reports until the end of the year. But many other consumer reporting agencies limit your free reports to one every 12 months. So mark your calendar, because checking your data for errors is likely to be a never-ending task.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by personal finance website NerdWallet. Liz Weston is a NerdWallet columnist, certified financial planner, and author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lizweston.

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: 5 Steps to Clearing Your ChexSystems Folder

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: list of consumer reporting companies

LexisNexis: Access Your LexisNexis Consumer Disclosure Reports

Colleen D. Ervin