Find out and fix what Big Data says about you

I thought I knew all about the information consumer organizations were collecting about me. Then I discovered The Work Number – a database that records every paycheck I’ve received from my company, net and gross, since I was employed six years ago.

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

“For every data point that someone can track, there’s going to be an office or someone that’s collecting information and selling that information,” says Matthew Loker, a consumer protection attorney in Arroyo Grande, California.


Unfortunately, not all reported information is correct – and errors can have serious consequences. Loker says one of his clients lost a lucrative job offer because a job-hunting company mistook her for a drug smuggler. Until the bug was fixed, the position was filled. Other people have been denied insurance, housing, bank accounts and government benefits due to database errors.

But spotting and correcting mistakes is no easy task.

DOZENS OF COMPANIES FOLLOW US

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

Reviewing all of those reports would be a daunting task, says consumer advocate Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Even narrowing down options to the agency most likely to have relevant information can be difficult, Wu says.

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

You can of course ask the prospective landlord, but until you spot an error in the report and fix it, this apartment may have been rented for a long time.

CHOOSE YOUR GOALS

Privacy advocate Evan Hendricks recommends targeting some of the larger databases first. For tenant screening, this could include RealPage or TransUnion SmartMove.

One of the largest consumer data aggregators is LexisNexis, which offers various types of background checks. The report you get back can be hundreds of pages, detailing everything from speeding tickets and gun 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 auto and personal injury claims. You can request your detailed report at https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer.

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

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

“People have been fired or at risk of being fired from benefits or being accused of overpayment because of The Work Number,” says Wu.

Request your ChexSystems report if you are planning to open a new bank account or have had problems with a previous account, e.g.

If you are considering applying for individual life, health, nursing care, or disability insurance, request your files from MIB and Milliman IntelliScript. MIB collects information about medical conditions, while Milliman IntelliScript collects prescription drug purchase history.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR REPORTS

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

If you find errors, follow the company’s appeals process. If you cannot solve the problem, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.

Some companies—including the credit bureaus, RealPage, LexisNexis, ChexSystems, and The Work Number—allow you to freeze your reports. This generally prevents companies from accessing your data without your permission. Freezing can bring some problems as you need to keep track of a password or PIN, and freezing can slow down loans or other applications. The trade-off is more privacy.

Speaking of credit bureaus, you currently have weekly free access to your credit reports through the end of the year. But many other consumer reporting agencies limit their free reports to one every 12 months. So mark your calendar because checking your data for errors is probably 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 columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and the author of Your Credit Score. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lizweston.

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: 5 steps to cleaning up your ChexSystems record

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: List of Consumer Reporting Companies

LexisNexis: Access your LexisNexis consumer disclosure reports

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