My Personal Identity CrisisBy Tom Steinert-Threlkeld | Posted 09-07-2005
Information brokers wonder why they don't get any respect.
But if they want to understand why, all they have to do is use ... their own documents.
This is what executive editor John McCormick and senior writer Deborah Gage showed so starkly in "Blur," their cover story about data giant ChoicePoint (June,p. 32). Data flies in and out of electronic repositories. But no one raises a finger to checkthe accuracy of what's passing through.
After the "Blur" report, I asked ChoicePoint for a search of public records on myself. And I purchased a side-by-side comparison of information collected on myself by the three national credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
I learned that somewhere in this country I supposedly was an officer or principal in a restaurant called Steinert's Country Cookin. Don't know where. That is not in the record. But I sure hope the true proprietor pays his bills. I don't want to.
Heck, I'd settle for someone spelling my name right. ChoicePoint captures my last name as "Steinert Threlk." Fairfield County, Conn., believes the owner of the house where I live is "Steinert-Theekleld T Theekleld Kayte.''
Now, I know I have a difficult name. But it's no joke when 50 different spellings of your name turn up attached to one Social Security number. The Social Security Administration has my name spelled right. Can't legitimate information brokers clean up that most basic record of all?
I don't think so. The credit reporting agencies disabused me of any notion that these automated processes have been thought through and worked through.
First, I tried to order reports through Experian.I couldn't enter my ZIP code. Sure, I know my ZIP code. Sure, I could type it in. But it starts with a zero. Experian's ZIP code field drops initial zeros. Then the system boots you out for only entering four digits instead of five.
My experience wasn't much better with Equifax. It took more than a week to get cleared to download my personal credit reports. At first, I admired Equifax for its caution.
But after two rounds of sending utility bills, driver's licenses, telephone records and the like by fax to prove who I was, I was kicked over to the "dispute department.'' I hadn't disputed a thing. I just was providing records as requested, to prove who I was.
When I called to talk, for the second time, to a live human being, the gist of the holdup turned out to be .... the name. My name has a hyphen in it. The Equifax system drops the hyphen and can't resolve the fact that other records have the hyphen present. But it gets worse. I entered "Thomas" as my first name on my application. And the system couldn't resolve that "Tom'' might be the same person.
I'd like to think these three great agencies could at least agree on where I live and work. But TransUnion thinks I still live in Texas; I left there in 2001, and fully disclosed that fact.
Equifax thinks I still work for The Dallas Morning News. I left that newspaper in October 1994 to come to work here at Ziff Davis.
So, pardon those of us who know the truth: There is precious little motivation to be right. That might take time and money.
Accuracy doesn't just accidentally happen.
Indeed, it could be another 11 years before any of the three credit bureaus figures out that I've moved on from here.
Passing the Torch
With the next issue, John McCormick becomes editor-in-chief of Baseline, and Anna Maria Virzi its executive editor. These are two of the greatest talents in business publishing today. Each has won Jesse H. Neal awards, among the top awards in business journalism, for excellence.
They will continue the Baseline ethos of raising the bar in what we do, edition after edition. You should look forward with great anticipation to the substance of what they will bring you, as they tell you exactly how technology affects the bottom line.
Where will I be? Write me, if you like, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you might say, stay tuned.