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.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

I learned of my death in the midst of buying my first apartment.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

"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.

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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."

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