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From his column It’s Your Money

its-your-money-09-13-1One of the big news stories from the summer of 2013 involved the revelation about how much data the National Security Agency (NSA) can access. The use of cell phones and the Internet leaves digital breadcrumbs. The flow of credit card and bank transactions carve a channel in the bedrock of 21st Century life.

Data flows freely these days. I volunteer to provide data when I register for a preferred shopper card at the grocery or drug store. Other data collection is done without my permission. Everytime I go to the post office to check for mail, for example, I notice the security camera recording my presence, including a date and time stamp, I’m sure. I have no say about the digital recording the post office keeps about my movement when I’m on its premises.

Consumer Reporting Agencies

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) implements the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This provision ensures a person’s right to know what data is compiled by reporting agencies and the right to dispute incomplete or inaccurate info. If a person finds errors, a written response from the consumer becomes part of the file.

I recently used the CFPB’s list of consumer reporting agencies to check on the type of information the agencies had on me. Some of the companies provided an online application. Others required a phone call or written request.

The most well known on the list were the three national credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Consumers can get a free copy of their credit report from each agency once a year. I used one website to access all three reports. They included all kinds of information; even closed accounts stay in the file for ten years. I noticed that about once a year the companies that hold my mortgage and provide auto and property insurance review my credit rating.

The reports from the three agencies were similar, but not identical. All listed previous addresses. One identified a church address where I served as a pastor as a “single family” residence. Theologically, yes, we formed the family of God, but I don’t think that’s what the credit agency intended to say.

The TransUnion report provided a monthly accounting of key credit accounts, including the balance, amount due, amount paid that month, amount past due, and a rating for the month. The table provided a quick summary of account activity.

I found the Equifax report especially helpful. It compiled a summary of credit accounts that included the totals for the credit limits and balances from which to calculate the debt-to-credit ratio. I discovered that we are using six percent of available credit on our credit cards (which we pay in full each month).

The Equifax report included a few coaching comments, too. For example, Equifax advised to keep open the oldest credit account—in our case, a revolving credit account we opened 20 years ago—since financial institutions will look favorably on accounts with a long track record.

I noticed a couple of interesting items. One agency acknowledged that they started monitoring my finances in November 1981. I wonder what I did to trigger that action. The other thing that seemed curious was a geographical code that pinpoints where I live by census tract and block group. I suppose the credit agency can run reports that show financial patterns block by block.

I requested a report from ChexSystems, a company that follows activity in checking accounts. I was glad to see that the overdrafts in a student account for which I was a co-signer had not been reported to the agency. The report indicated that I had not bounced checks nor have I recently placed an order for checks to be printed. This report did include the year in which I was assigned my Social Security Number. Hmmm, I wonder how that information is used?

Several companies provide reports on banking activity. Monitoring these may be as important as checking those from the three credit agencies. A recent article in the New York Times reported on how even slight missteps with a checking account can create difficulty for a person.

I did not previously know that there are databases which track insurance claims. The property insurance claim for the damage caused when a water softener malfunctioned and poured over 30,000 gallons of water into our basement (although, the sump pump valiantly tried to keep up) did not make the report, since it was more than seven years ago. I did find the auto insurance claim from when the driver rear ended us while we sat at a red light. The report included my driver’s license number, the car’s VIN number, and the $3,012 it took to repair our car.

Other consumer reports follow medical information, utility accounts, and employment history. There seems to be no end to the information stored in computers. At least for some, I can verify that it is correct and take steps to rectify the situation if needed.

Keith Schwanz is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kansas, and the founder of Storian Press, a book production company.

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