Randy Padawer (PsychDoc) is a clinical
psychologist whose research interests range from
personality testing to consumer credit. He has been featured in publications as diverse as the
Journal of Personality Assessment, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, and
Smart Money Magazine. Dr. Padawer co-wrote the best-selling "FICO 850" seminar for
The Motley Fool, and he has consulted for numerous companies and others regarding
consumer behavior and credit reporting.
Insider Guide to
CREDIT BUREAUS AND CREDIT REPORTS
Psychosis #1: The nature of credit bureaus.
LET'S BEGIN with a startling notion: The credit bureaus don't want you to read this. Why? Probably because those agencies, along with the much larger banking institutions which depend upon them, desperately need consumers to buy into a few oft-told myths which perpetuate their respective businesses. Unfortunately, though, not knowing the truth can cost a consumer tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars during an average lifetime.
Where credit bureaus are concerned, there are essentially two sets of "truths." On the one hand, there is the fairly meaningless happy patter they want you to believe, which you can find repeated in just about every credit-related book and Internet site. And then, of course, there's the real truth which I'll shortly elucidate.
Unfortunately, in order to truly embrace stark reality we must first peruse the prevailing fiction. So we'll examine both here. This article will aim to demolish the social psychosis perpetuated by companies like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion and transport you to a veritable Valhalla of consumer mental health. Even better, maybe you'll end up saving a few bucks too.
Psychosis #1: There are three official credit bureaus, and these beloved and vital American institutions maintain accurate records regarding the financial lives of every adult citizen.
There's so much wrong with practically every word of this fantasy that it's tough for a consumer advocate to know where to begin.
First, the so-called "big three" consumer reporting agencies with which most Americans are familiar ‹ Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion ‹ truly want consumers to believe that they've each been blessed with a sanctioned franchise. Actually, the only reason such corporate behemoths now dominate the landscape is because their progenitors simply managed to swallow up each other as they battled for preeminence through the decades. Greed, not official dictum, paved their way. Even if you didn't click the historical link in the previous sentence just now (and missed out on how, for example, the company which became Equifax once used Welcome Wagon ladies to spy for them), suffice to say there is hardly anything "beloved" about these privacy-busting companies.
Moreover, there are indeed other, newer, credit bureaus on the horizon (with names like Innovis, Lakeside, and NCTDE) which hope to eventually eclipse today's major players. In fact, anybody who so desired could start their own credit reporting agency, collect personal information about their friends and neighbors, and then attempt to sell that data to whoever would be nosy enough to purchase it. Sure, federal law puts limits upon what can be reported and to whom, but nothing bars any one of us from entering the field outright regardless.
So contrary to the prevailing perceptual reality, there are no official bureaus. And while most Americans perceive their credit reports to have at least the same legal standing as their driving records, the truth is that the government had no role in establishing the for-profit companies which produce them. Put bluntly, no law mandates a credit report's existence, and such documents deserve as much respect as "The Weekly World News" supermarket tabloid or any other similarly unproven list of allegations.
And what about the "accurate records" idea? Every serious study to date has reached the same conclusion: Credit reports are simply rife with errors.
Psychosis #2: Your credit report is reviewed carefully.
That used to be true.
Once upon a time in America, if you applied for a credit account anywhere, a bookkeeper in some dusty back room requested a credit report from your local bureau. In fact, in those heady days before the corporate titans took over, all credit bureaus were local. Then every line of your file would be assessed, and if there was a problem, you might be telephoned or called in for more discussion. Lo, you might even be asked for a personal pledge attesting to your responsible intentions. Then a decision would be rendered, usually, but not always, in your favor.
The problem with that business model is that it isn't very scalable. Scouring an individual's credit report takes time, and it also takes skilled (with any luck, that is) human beings to render careful judgments. Unfortunately for fair decision-making, that's just not manageable if you want to extend credit to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people on a national scale. Automation, of course, must save the day, and technology hasn't yet allowed that to include an individualized reading and analysis of everybody's credit reports.
That's where the credit score comes into play. A seemingly wonderful solution, credit scores actually introduce a boatload of other new problems.
So quash Psychosis #2 here and now. Of course the credit bureaus want consumers to believe that things haven't changed, that life is as quaint as it was decades ago, and that people actually pay attention to the report itself rather than just a glorified number. In fact, the bureaus need consumers to believe that, which takes us to our next bit of consumer psychopathology:
Psychosis #3: Including a
credit statement is helpful.
What sheep they believe us to be. In the early 1970s when the Fair Credit Reporting Act first gave Americans the right to include such statements on their reports, life was different. Prospective creditors still actually perused consumer files with authentic human eyeballs. (Read Psychosis #2.) So in those halcyon days of yore, a plaintive comment placed in the report by the consumer herself might have made a difference at mortgage time.
Nowadays the 100-word statements can only harm the consumer. First, as we've discussed, such personal statements are essentially never read by potential creditors anyway since the credit score is the usual qualifying determinant. Second, those statements only make it more difficult to embark upon a credit repair effort later because they serve to confirm what's already there. So, for example, let's say a consumer attaches a statement that reads something like this: "These late payments were made only because I was suddenly laid off (or sick), but that unfortunate situation changed very quickly, and we have never been late with this or any other account since." That may sound responsible, but unfortunately it says only this in reality: "NOTE: yes I really was late paying these accounts. Plus I'm not smart enough to have an emergency fund to cover basic minimum payments if something goes wrong financially. Therefore, I am a bad credit risk."
Even worse, let's say a consumer subsequently learns something about credit reporting and decides to engage Lexington Law Firm to help confront things legally and technically. Whoops. The credit bureau is going to dismiss any new challenge even faster than it would have before because there's no need to even take another look: After all, it's right there in the consumer's statement which admits fault. Remember that extenuating health or employment circumstances are viewed as little more than lame excuses to these cold corporate entities anyway.
Most consumer advocate old-timers will advise that the first items to be disputed are those silly 100 word statements if any were ever inserted. The Credit Insider heartily concurs with that philosophy.
Insider Guide to
CREDIT BUREAUS AND CREDIT REPORTS
Psychosis #4: Negative items must remain for 7 years.
That's sheer and utter balderdash. Even so, consumers hear it every day when they telephone creditors directly: "Sorry, by law that has to remain on your report for seven years." The next time you hear that, know this: The automaton posing as a customer service representative is either spreading lies or ignorance, neither of which is good for your fiscal or mental health.
Sure, the bureaus want consumers to believe the lie because they have based their business plans upon reporting nasties to their subscribers, and they don't want to run out of them. The truth, though, is that nobody is required to report anything about any of us for any minimum length of time to anybody else. Put bluntly, relevant laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act only serve to place LIMITS upon how consumer reporting agencies can and cannot behave.
PsychDoc's Credit Insider Guide to
CREDIT BUREAUS AND CREDIT REPORTS
Psychosis #5: Seeking help in repairing credit is unlawful.
Such statements are the most insidious and sickest lies of all. In fact, this is the very same psychology a predator uses with his victim: "Here, I'm abusing you, but follow my rules. You can't talk to others about it. You can't ask for help. If you do request or receive help from someone else, you'll only suffer more damage in the long run. Keep to yourself. Remember that I'll tell lies about you if I wish. And if you have any problem with any of this, speak only to me about it."
The facts cut straight to our constitutional citizenship: All of us have a fundamental right to legal representation. Whenever we are accused of anything, whether that accusation appears in the newspaper, on a rap sheet, on a credit report, or anywhere else, we are guaranteed the right to request assistance with both understanding and defending against such allegations.
Credit bureaus occasionally (and vaguely) suggest that using a third-party violates some law. Sometimes, they'll send a letter to consumers who have challenged one or more items on their reports that basically accuses them of having sought outside assistance with the problem. Note that they never actually come out and say plainly, "Using outside counsel is against the law," because it isn't. Instead they simply invite the consumer to write back and deny the charge or to implicate the third-party somehow in some unnamed wrongdoing. The specific wrongdoing is never spelled out, of course, but the effect is the same: The credit bureaus, by donning the cloak of artificial officialdom, hope to intimidate consumers into backing down and getting right back into line with all the other quiet people who are afraid to challenge their faux authority. Lexington clients are instructed to simply send such letters to the firm, but even those attempting to confront their credit reports on their own are well advised to simply ignore such provocations.
So long as consumers can be managed through skilled deception, credit bureaus will continue to unfairly profit at our expense. Reified credit scores will continue to define our suitability for home ownership. Credit acquisition, insurance, and employment will continue to be lost as a result of sloppy data maintenance. Fundamental changes will only occur when consumers reject these untruths which are propagated so successfully within our culture.
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