I learned of my death in the midst of buying my first apartment.
"Two of the three major credit agencies have you classified as 'deceased' and give no score for you," my real estate broker wrote in an e-mail. Over the next week, I pieced together a few mysterious threads: Nearly a decade ago, someone, somewhere, opened a credit card account in my name; a few months later, someone, somewhere, told the bank affiliated with the card that I had died. It could have been an identity thief who lost his nerve. It could have been a simple misfire of computer neurons at the bank or credit bureau. I'll almost certainly never know.
Likewise, I may never know why the notation "consumer reported as deceased" lurked on my report for so many years before the ghost busters at Experian and TransUnion finally wiped me and my score from their books. (Equifax, bless them, never wrote me off.) My phantom self had taken advantage of the delay, rattling her chains in innumerable houses of retail and consolidating her student loans from beyond the grave.
My death was confusing, even controversial, and not just to me. For one thing, the bank that reported my demise to the credit companies was the same bank that was processing my mortgage application. For another, since 2006 I had subscribed to a credit-monitoring service, yet the sad news hadn't reached me. (When I complained, a rep argued, "But you aren't dead, and if you were, there would have been no one to tell." Touché.)
TransUnion reanimated me within 48 hours, after one phone call and one notarized fax. Experian was a different story—a story somewhat in keeping with its reputation for provocation. After its Web site FreeCreditReport.com raised the hackles of the Federal Trade Commission for its misleading name (the domain is actually a portal to Experian's $14.95-per-month credit-monitoring service), Experian launched a virtually identical site called FreeCreditScore.com. Experian's long-inescapable TV spots for its "free" services—which portray low credit scores as mangy, misbehaved pets and as the thorn in the side of a scruffy emo-lite singer—helped inspire a class action suit alleging false advertising. (The legal skirmish didn't stop Experian from launching a competition to find FreeCreditScore.com's next "house band"; the new ads will premiere during the MTV awards on Sept. 12.)
Experian had my attention (there's no captive market like a dead woman who longs to live again) but seemed to have no idea what to do with it. Its automated phone system was labyrinthine. When I'd stumble upon an actual human being, he or she would ask me to mail or fax something to somebody else. I wrote letter after letter, fax after fax that disappeared into the ether. Idiotically, ridiculously, I kept buying new credit reports over and over, each time hoping that this would be the straight-A dossier I could show to the mortgage lenders. I could never obtain anyone's e-mail address or extension, so I could never follow up with the same Experian rep. By Week 2, I knew all my lines in this Kafka-lite play by heart: "No, my husband didn't die. … No, no one in my family died. … Yes, I've purchased a credit report. … No, I don't need to purchase monitoring …" The paper trail evaporates. The consumer-ghost leaves no trace.
I described my situation to Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. He explained that Experian's computers would have shrunk my side of the life-death argument—all those detailed and agitated declarations of my élan vital!—to a mere two-digit dispute code. "You're giving them all this information, but it just turns into a number," he said. A likely scenario: "The credit bureau sends the number to the bank, which says, 'Oh, we've got her listed as dead,' and they send a number back to the credit bureau to confirm it. It's just one machine talking to another machine, confirming the inaccurate information that you're trying to fix."
After weeks of trying and failing to prove one's existence, with a home hanging in the balance, one's inhibitions began to crumble. One begins committing acts of emotional blackmail.
One actually says things like, "I am a human being but you are treating me like a bar code."
Or, "This is literally ruining my life and you don't care."
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.
"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.