Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Give me some credit

I first got credit reports back in the ancient, pre-free-annual-report era. I was planning on buying a car after graduation, and knew it would be a good idea to make sure my credit was clear before applying for the loan. I hit up all the credit agencies separately. Where they offered it, I just got a report without a score; for at least one of them, I needed to get the score as well.

I realize this isn't a contest, but I was a little pleased to see how much credit history I had, considering I was just 22 years old. I had a single credit card by that point and a line of credit from my bank, plus some history from a Best Buy finance I had done for my PC. My Fair Isaac score fit into the "good" range, which made me happy.

That car was the biggest purchase I've made to date, and while I've continued to be interested in my credit, it's more out of a concern about identity theft than needing to worry about my score. I don't see any major finances coming up until I buy a house (which should occur sometime around the year 2060), so I can afford to relax about it.

That said, I'm fascinated in looking at stuff like this, and when Congress mandated the free annual credit report, I popped online the first day it was available in the Midwest and got all three. Or at least, I tried to. The Equifax and TransUnion ones came through like a dream, all pleasantly delivered online; it was interesting to see how some items would only show on one report, it was a little like getting two different witnesses to the same series of events. For some reason, the Experian report couldn't be delivered online; they asked me to send in a printed request for the report, but I blew it off. If there was any problem with my history, I knew it would've shown up in one of the other two agencies' reports.

After reading an article later, I came to the conclusion that I had probably made a bad choice by splurging on all three reports at once. You're entitled to one free report a year, but nothing says that all reports need to be retrieved at the same time. If you space them out four months apart, you can monitor your credit throughout the year, and get a bit more advance warning if any suspicious items start appearing.

So, I waited a whole year, and then started on the new system. First up in April was Transunion. Everything looked great. Next, in August, was Equifax. No problems there. Now, in December, was time for Experian.

Once again, I couldn't get the report online. All agencies work more or less the same - you fill in your name and SSN, then they challenge you with a few questions about your credit history. This is more challenging than it sounds, because the actual names of companies that you deal with are different than you might thing. For example, I had a "GM" credit card, but the actual bank name was "HSBC". So when I couldn't get my report online, I figured it was because I flubbed one of these identification things, but still went ahead and sent in the hard copy. It had been a few years since I'd seen Experian, and I wanted to make sure it was still in synch.

The report arrived last night, and my jaw dropped when I opened it. It was 18 pages long, and filled with item after item that I'd never heard of before. Kansas Credit Counselors? Affiliated Accep Corp? I apparently had a loan from Honda that was way overdue. I thought at first that I'd gotten someone else's report by mistake, but only because all the negative items were up front; once I got farther in I started to see familiar accounts.

The problem became a bit clearer when I reached the "Personal Information" section. Here too were many items that did not belong to me, but these made a bit more sense. Among my many aliases, apparently, are "Christopher S. King" and "Chris S. King". It listed two social security numbers that I've never seen before. Evidently I got married at some point to someone named "Danny." And there were a large number of addresses in Kansas and Missouri where I have never lived before.

At this point several things clicked into place: I had a doppelganger. This isn't exactly a new thing for me. There was another Christopher King who went to my elementary school in MN, was a grade ahead of me, and occasionally our information would get mixed up. At one point my medical records were swapped with another Christopher King. More recently, when I got auto insurance after graduation, I had to untangle the unpleasant fact that another Christopher King had stayed at my address before me and had amassed a bad driving record... untangling that mess was unpleasant. And for almost a year I was included on the FAA's No Fly List - or rather, someone with a name close to mine was, and I suffered the consequences. As my mind turned, I thought of credit rejections that I had never worried about because they were so minor - a card from Fry's and a charge card from Kohl's. When I had thought my credit was clear I was sure these were due to my recent move or some other external factor, but suddenly I realized that my pristine credit history wasn't so pristine.

While I like Christopher King, sometimes I'm not a big fan of Christopher King.

I was greatly annoyed, but once I figured out what was happening, it became easier to deal with. I was glad to discover that my identity hadn't been stolen, just confused. I'm by nature a problem-solver, so the question became, how to solve it?

Experian has a handy web site for disputing credit information, but it didn't really fit what I needed. The online tool is more oriented towards basically correct reports and allows you to challenge individual items which you believe to be inaccurate. In my case, I didn't think that the items were necessarily inaccurate, just that they didn't belong to me. As much as I dread using the phone, it seemed like my only shot at unraveling the tangled story of Christopher C King and Christopher S King.

I called soon after I arrived at work this morning - I usually arrive around 7, two hours before most people start coming in, and wanted to deal with everything while it was still quiet. Experian has an automated system that uses one of those annoying voice recognition things, where you need to actually speak in order to navigate through. My biggest complaint is that it doesn't work very well; even for simple things like "Yes" I often need to repeat myself. Even if the software got better, though, I'd still hate it because when I'm in an office I don't want to speak any more than necessary. It disturbs others, and I'd much rather press buttons than say my social security number out loud for all to hear.

Some of the stuff I could handle directly through the menu; it let me divorce my spouse and change my birth year. But for the crucial items - names, addresses and SSNs - I needed to speak to a live person. And - SURPRISE! - representatives are only available from 9AM-5PM local time. I cursed a little; since I figured the service representatives were probably in India anyways it seemed really arbitrary to not let me talk with them until business hours started in California. Still, whatever. I was in process now and willing to wrap it up.

After 9 rolled around I called again. This time the voice recognition was even worse than before, which ended up being a good thing - it got frustrated when it couldn't understand my inscrutable pronouncements ("Yes"), so it gave up and let me use the keypad instead, which is what I wanted in the first place. I raced through the same items as before, and ended up getting patched into their live support network.

Did I have to hold? Of COURSE I had to hold. But it wasn't the worst hold I've had... maybe about 20 minutes to reach the first tier, then another 5 minutes for the second tier. It did get me to thinking, though. For most companies out there, it's in their interest to provide at least a basic level of phone support. They need to balance that against expenses and as a result may have poorer support than one would prefer, but if it's very unsatisfactory people will ultimately take their business elsewhere. The credit unions are an interesting case, though, because they make their money from businesses, not the individuals who would call support. As much as I might like to, I can't cancel my Experian account; if I was on hold for an hour, I would be infuriated, but would have no tools at all to show my displeasure. So, why do they provide any support at all? As I see it, there are only two possible reasons: government regulations and the threat of government regulations. Either they are required (by the US government or perhaps by their corporate clients) to provide a certain level of support, or they are afraid that if they sufficiently alienate individuals, an outcry will erupt (much like that which led to the free annual credit report) and the clamps will come down.

Be that as it may. The first person I talked with was articulate and pleasant and on the phone for all of 30 seconds. I started explaining everything that was wrong, then she transferred me to someone who could process my entire report. The second woman wasn't quite as nice to talk with, but was extremely efficient, which I definitely appreciate. We spent about five minutes of me reading off addresses, accounts, and more stuff which I had marked off on my report. After each one she would say "I have removed that from your account. What is the next one?" I was half-expecting to need to challenge and explain each one, so it was nice to breeze through them. I guess that she could probably check them to see who they were opened by and see that it was the OTHER Chris King.

After that all went through, she sort of summed up what was going on. They had removed all the inaccurate stuff from my personal section. In order to avoid any problems in the future, she recommended that I always use my middle name when opening accounts. All of the bad credit items were instantly deleted, except for the Kansas Counselors one, which were opened by "Christopher King" without a middle initial. In that case they will contact the lender and hopefully that organization will shift it over to the real culprit.

I'm glad to see that it's mainly over now. Dealing with this is kind of a pain, but at the same time, it's kind of nice to have an explanation for a few things which hadn't made sense before. It also makes me a little curious and paranoid about the exact identity of my doppelganger. I sort of imagine that the bad information that I have is a composite of different mistakes, but what if they all fit one person? I am fascinated by the thought that there is a Christopher S King who was born on July 5, 1978, and who lived at 501 W 8th St #311. If that was the case, then I'm less upset at Experian for confusing the two of us, and correspondingly impressed with Equifax and Transunion for keeping us straight. And wouldn't it be wild if this was the same person who used to go to my elementary school, and who landed the two of us on the No Fly List?

Be that as it may. There are just a few small hurdles left to overcome, and I'm hopeful that once they're through, my record will have fended off the intruder and will once again be mine alone.

UPDATE 12/30/06: Huzzah! I just received mail from Experian containing my updated and corrected credit report. It looks good - all references to any negative incidents have been deleted, leaving only my pristine good name intact. There's one single thing that doesn't look right; it looks like they deleted my Kansas City address instead of his, so it still shows me as having lived in his apartment. Sigh. I need to decide whether or not to call them again about this, but I probably won't... it was far enough ago for both of us that I doubt it will cause more problems in the future. Anyways, it feels great to have my life back!


  1. A fascinating tale of derring-do, if I've ever heard one!

    I remember that other Chris King from junior high. I think he and I were on the same bus route for a time.

  2. Heh, seriously? That's wild. I've never actually seen him, he was always this mysterious presence just beyond my sight.