I thought I knew all the information that consumer agencies were collecting about me. Then I opened the “Work Number” – a database that reports on every salary I received from my company, with net and gross amounts, starting from the date of hiring six years ago.
Another consumer agency shows the results of the 2016 echocardiogram. (That was okay.) Another one is tracking insurance claims on my house and car. If I made too many returns at retail stores or declined a check at the casino, it could also appear in the database.
“Any data point that someone can track will be a bureau or someone will collect information and sell that information,” said Matthew Locker, a consumer advocate at Arroyo Grande, California.
Unfortunately, not all of the information reported is accurate – and errors can have serious consequences. Locker says one of his clients lost a lucrative job offer because an employment check company confused her with a drug smuggler. By the time the error was corrected the position had been filled. Other people were denied insurance, apartments, bank accounts and government benefits due to errors in the database.
But detecting and correcting mistakes is not a small thing.
Dozens of companies are watching us
The Bureau of Consumer Protection maintains a 38-page list of consumer reporting agencies. In addition to the big three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – the list includes 22 employment checks, 10 tenants, six checks and banks, four insurance reporting agencies and two health news companies, among others.
Checking all of these reports will be a monumental task, says consumer advocate Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Center for Consumer Law. Even narrowing down options to an agency that is 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 will use.”
You can, of course, ask the future landlord, but as long as you find and correct the error in the report, this apartment can be long ago rented.
Choose your goals
Privacy Attorney Evan Hendrix recommends you start by targeting some of the larger databases. To test the tenant this may include RealPage or TransUnion SmartMove.
One of the largest aggregators of consumer data is LexisNexis, which provides different types of background screening. The report you will receive can be hundreds of pages detailing everything from travel tickets and concealed weapons permits to the amount of every mortgage you have ever had, bankruptcy, tax pledges, evictions and criminal records. LexisNexis also manages the Comprehensive Loss Insurance Exchange, or CLUE, which collects and reports claims on automatic and personal property. You can request your comprehensive report at https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer.
If you work, check Equifax-owned Work Number and has current payroll data for more than 136 million jobs. If you have information about your salary – and it probably is – you will also see which companies and government agencies have checked it recently.
Government agencies also refer to Work Number files to combat unemployment fraud and determine entitlement to state benefits, among others. That in itself is a good reason to check your file for errors, Wu says.
“People were fired or risked losing benefits or accused of overpaying for a work number,” Wu says.
Request a ChexSystems report if you plan to open a new bank account or have problems with your previous account, such as not paying an overdraft fee or checking your waiver.
If you plan to apply for individual life, health, long-term care or disability insurance, request your files in the MIB and Milliman IntelliScript. The MIB collects information about medical conditions, and Milliman IntelliScript collects a history of purchases of prescription drugs.
What if you have reports
You don’t usually need to pay to request your details, but you may have to wait to get them. Some companies allow you to view files online, but many require you to send a form or call a toll-free number to request a report. The company has 15 days to respond as soon as it receives your request, CFPB says.
If you find any mistakes, keep an eye on the company’s dispute process. If you cannot resolve the issue, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.
Several companies – including credit bureaus, RealPage, LexisNexis, ChexSystems and The Work Number – give you the ability to freeze your reports. Typically, this prevents companies from accessing your data without your permission. Freezing can cause some worries as you will have to keep track of your password or PIN, and freezing can slow down credits or other programs. Compromise – more privacy.
Speaking of credit bureaus: you are currently allowed free weekly access to your credit reports until the end of the year. But many other consumer reporting agencies limit your free reports to once every 12 months. So mark your calendar, as checking your data for errors is likely to be an endless task.
This column was provided by The Associated Press on the NerdWallet personal finance website.
Liz Weston is a columnist for NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of “Your Credit Score”. Email: lwestonnerdwallet.com. Twitter: lizweston.