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Your name can mess up your credit report

Shirley Davis has endured 50 years of credit woes and mishaps.

She's been refused access to her own credit accounts. She's been accused of not paying an electric bill in Washington and skipping out on a credit account in Alaska. She's had numerous collection agencies come after her. All because she married a man with a common name.

Jack Davis, no middle initial, is Shirley's husband. But Jack Davis is also the name of a number of other men, and some have bad credit. The credit problems of those other Jacks keep showing up on Jack and Shirley's credit reports. It's been happening for years.

"They just seem to stick everything on there that says 'Jack Davis.' They don't care what kind of records go with it," Davis says.

Things got really bad when the Davises moved to Idaho back in 1993. They had the misfortune of moving to an area where another Jack Davis who didn't bother to pay his bills used to live. "Apparently he owed everyone in the whole country because I got bill after bill after bill after we moved here," Davis says.

So, strange as it seems, your credit score could take hit after hit -- all because you share a name with someone else. Folks with common names have to work hard to keep their credit reports clean and free of someone else's credit mistakes.

Just how do these mix-ups happen?
First, consider the sheer volume of information being transmitted from creditors to credit bureaus. Experian, one of the big three credit bureaus along with Equifax and TransUnion, updates 30 million credit reports each day and roughly 2 billion credit reports each month.

Making sure the information from creditors falls into the correct credit file is no mean feat. It comes down to matching the identifying personal information in a credit application or credit account with the identifying personal information in a consumer credit file.

Identifying personal information includes items such as first name, last name and middle initial, full current address and ZIP code, full previous address and ZIP code, and Social Security number.

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The new credit information goes into the consumer credit file that it best matches.

"We rarely get all the information matching in all the fields. We have to find the right line of how much variation you allow and still call it a match," says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public affairs at Experian.

"If the wrong person matches better than anyone else, unfortunately it could go into the wrong account."

Mistakes happen. Imperfect data leads to imperfect matches
A consumer might provide incomplete or inaccurate information on a credit application. A creditor might submit incomplete or inaccurate information to the credit bureaus.

Maybe the consumer didn't write clearly on the account application. Or two or three digits of a consumer's Social Security number get transposed somewhere along the way.

Name variations on different credit accounts can also result in less- than-perfect matches. Take the name Robert James Johnson. One account may say Robert Johnson. Another may say Bob Johnson. Another might say Robert J. Johnson.

Or say Robert writes his middle initial as "J" on an account but it's mistaken for an "I." Say the last two digits of Robert's Social Security number get transposed.

Now imagine other Robert Johnsons out there doing the same kinds of things. The more common your name the greater the chance of a credit file mix-up.

Seniors and juniors have it pretty rough. They've got the same name. They may even live at the same address. Norm Magnuson, vice president of public affairs at Associated Credit Bureaus, learned this lesson as a college student.

"I was a junior. I never used junior. It was a big problem," Magnuson says. The best way to sort out the senior and junior credit mess is to use the senior or junior designation on everything.

Folks with common names should be sure to use their full first names and middle initials on credit applications.

Be consistent
"Every bill that comes to your house should be addressed exactly the same," says Dave Mooney, public relations director at Equifax.

Write clearly on all credit applications. Check your credit report regularly.

"A John Smith, who God forbid, lives on Main Street really ought to get a copy of his credit file once a year and check it -- maybe twice a year," Mooney says.

Correct errors promptly and be persistent. Be sure to contact creditors directly as well. You don't want to have to argue with a collection agency over a bill that isn't yours. It's not pleasant.

Davis has had to threaten to sue several collection agencies before they would leave her alone.

"A mistake is OK. A mistake will happen," Davis says. "But when they're not receptive to information you give them. They think you're a liar. It's like talking to a brick wall."

Her advice for people with common names? "It's just a matter of really being vigilant," she says.

You never know when you could be mistaken for someone else. Years ago, a sheriff knocked on her door and tried to serve her with some papers. She wouldn't let him in. She held up her husband's military discharge papers through the screen door to prove who they were. The sheriff left.

"To this day I don't know what it was for," Davis says. "I know one thing. It was not for us."


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See Also
Clipping digits to curb credit card fraud
Study finds 1 in 10 are victims of credit card fraud
Loophole in laws lets scammers take buyers for a ride online
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