Liz Weston: Find out and fix what big data says about you

Apr 18, 2022, 4:00 AM | Updated: 5:09 pm
FILE - This undated file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Liz Weston, a columnist for personal fi...

FILE - This undated file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Liz Weston, a columnist for personal finance website NerdWallet.com. Information about you — things you may have thought were private — is stored in databases operated by consumer reporting agencies. If there is data to track, there’s a good chance it’s in a database somewhere, including the size of your paychecks, the medications you take or how often you return merchandise. And an error in one of these databases can cost you money or opportunities. (NerdWallet via AP, File)

(NerdWallet via AP, File)

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

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

“Any data point that someone can track, there’s going to be a bureau or someone gathering information and selling that information,” says Matthew Loker, a consumer protection attorney in Arroyo Grande, California.

Unfortunately, not all the information being reported is accurate — and mistakes can have serious consequences. Loker says one of his clients lost a lucrative job offer because an employment screening company confused her with a drug smuggler. By the time the error was fixed, the position was filled. Other people have been denied insurance, apartments, bank accounts and government benefits because of database errors.

But discovering and correcting mistakes is no small task.

DOZENS OF COMPANIES ARE TRACKING US

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

Checking all those reports would be a monumental task, says consumer advocate Chi Chi Wu , a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Even narrowing down the options to the agency most likely to have relevant information can be tough, 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 prospective landlord, of course, but by the time you spot and fix an error in the report, that apartment may be long since rented.

PICK YOUR TARGETS

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

One of the largest consumer data aggregators is LexisNexis , which provides various types of background screening . The report you get back could be hundreds of pages long, detailing everything from traffic tickets and concealed weapons permits 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 C.L.U.E., which collects and reports auto and personal property claims. You can request your comprehensive report at https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer.

If you’re employed, check The Work Number, which is owned by Equifax and has current payroll 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 checked it recently.

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

“People have been kicked off or risked being kicked off of benefits or accused of an overpayment because of The Work Number,” Wu says.

Request your ChexSystems report if you plan to open a new bank account or had problems with a previous account, such as not paying an overdraft fee or bouncing a check.

If you plan to apply for individual life, health, long-term 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 ONCE YOU HAVE YOUR REPORTS

You typically don’t have to pay to request your data, but you may have to wait to get it. Some companies allow you to see 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 any errors, follow the company’s dispute process. If you can’t get the problem resolved, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.

A few companies – including the credit bureaus, RealPage, LexisNexis, ChexSystems and The Work Number – give you the option to freeze your reports. That generally prevents companies from accessing your data without your permission. Freezes can involve some hassle since you’ll have to keep track of a password or PIN, and a freeze could slow down credit or other applications. The trade-off is more privacy.

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

_______________________________________

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

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: 5 Steps to Clear Up Your ChexSystems Record https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-steps-to-clear-up-your-chexsystems-record

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: List of consumer reporting companies https://www.consumerfinance.gov/consumer-tools/credit-reports-and-scores/consumer-reporting-companies/

LexisNexis: Access Your LexisNexis Consumer Disclosure Reports https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Liz Weston: Find out and fix what big data says about you