My ghastly tale of trying to convince the credit bureaus I'm not deceased.

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 8 2010 2:30 PM

Plight of the Living Dead

My ghastly tale of trying to convince the credit bureaus I'm not deceased.

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Or, "No one else will help me so you have to be the one who helps me. Can you be the one who helps me?"

The best kind of emotional blackmail is bursting into loud, racking sobs. (It's also the worst kind: messy, hiccup-inducing, terrifying to one's colleagues.) Loud, racking sobs prompted a flustered rep to transfer me to a higher-ranking Experian employee, whom I will call My Fairy Godmother. MFG conferenced me with An Important Person at the Bank who wiped my "deceased" listing in real time. MFG once stayed on the phone with me for 40 minutes straight. Thanks to MFG, I was reborn with a credit score, though my new report carried what looked like a bizarre but innocent typo: The name at the top of it was "Est Jessica Winter." But I didn't care! I'm alive, call me anything you want! I felt like George Bailey licking sweet, sweet lifeblood from his lip.

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"Est," I later discovered, is in fact an abbreviation for "Estate of." The deceased usually don't have credit scores, but for a brief, shining moment not so long ago, the Estate of Jessica Winter had an excellent one. In name, I was dead; in credit score, I was alive.

Days later, Est Jessica Winter was completely dead again. "When the credit bureau removes something from your report, they don't actually delete it from the database—they flag it," explained Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of Privacy Times. If there's even the slightest discrepancy in how a bank or credit-card company furnishes your data to the credit bureaus—if, say, a bank reports your data this month using a different subscriber number than last month—the glitch can result in "flagged" information worming its way back into your report, Hendricks said.

To console myself, I spent some time online searching for dead people like me. A Seattle-area woman was a familiar sight to tellers at her local Bank of America branch, but they were powerless to refinance her mortgage so long as her Experian credit report listed her as deceased. By the time Texas real estate developer David Jokinen appeared before the Senate Banking Committee in 2003, he'd been dead for two and a half years, after a clerical error blended his records with those of his late mother. One of the many ghoulish highlights of Jokinen's flabbergasting testimony: A year after Chase declared him dead, they offered to raise the credit limit on his zombie Visa card. I sensed my own life force draining away.

But compared to Jokinen, I'm lucky: Another week in phone-maze hell was enough to delete the "Est" and revivify my score, in time to close on the apartment. And I'm still alive today, though that could change. "I don't want to scare you, but this may continue to pop up," said John Ulzheimer of Credit.com. "If I were you, I'd be constantly getting copies of my reports for the foreseeable future."

Yet, odd as it may sound, my brush with credit mortality has made me less inclined to stand vigil over my credit score, and certainly more fatalistic about it. Rheingold sums up my frustration: "The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires 'reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy' of your information—so why should anyone need credit monitoring?" he asks. "They've taken their responsibility under the law and turned it into a product they can sell you."

That product will now be sold by the winners of Experian's band-search contest, the hirsute five-piece Victorious Secrets. Announcing the win on their Web site, the group wrote, "We promise to have great credit scores from now on." If that's a promise within any mere consumer's power to keep, I'd like to hear a song about it.

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