Lenders use new tactics to dig up financial dirt on potential borrowers

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Back in the old days (a.k.a. a few years ago), banks would determine if you were worthy of a loan by looking at your credit score and your income. Now, with defaults at near-record levels, lenders are much more cautious about who they give money to, so much so they're willing to violate your privacy and employ sneaky tactics in order to determine whether you're a deserving borrower. In fact, banks and lenders examine many aspects of your financial life that you might think have nothing to do with your loan application or that you assumed were kept private.

"If you collect people's personal data, it will have a value and the information professionals will figure out how to use the data," Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times and author of the book Credit Scores and Credit Reports, told WalletPop. "It's such a ratcheted-up level of surveillance, putting all of us in a fishbowl."

All of this data is gathered into an industry-wide clearinghouse (the term for an institution such as a credit bureau). Under the Federal Trade Commission's Fair Credit Reporting Act, the use of this data is supposed to be monitored by the government but Hendricks warns that this isn't always the case.

One of the sneaky things banks are starting to track (and rank) is your banking activity: How often and how much you deposit, how often you make withdrawals and how much money is in your account. This shouldn't matter, right? If you pay your bills on time, why should they care if you have a buck or a thousand in your checking account? Unfortunately, banks have figured out that big changes in your activity (such as no longer getting direct deposit, which could mean you've lost your job) could be an early warning sign that you're headed for some choppy financial waters. There are also new computer programs that pull all of the publicly-available information from your credit report, slice and dice it to come up with a guesstimate of how much money you make.

So, who's making and marketing all of these new ways to track your finances? In general, it's the three credit bureaus themselves, along with the Fair Isaac Corporation (the company that makes the FICO credit score). This article talks about specific programs being rolled out by Experian and Equifax to give banks a bigger peek at their customers' financial lives.

In some cases, the additional information that banks are gathering on us could help rather than hurt. For example, one tool tracks payment of rent and utility bills, which could help some people build credit by proving that they always paid these bills on time.

More often though, the information banks dig up could burn you, even if what they find is through no fault of your own. Would it be fair, for instance, for you to be denied a loan just because the bank found out that you were one of the millions of Americans whose home was underwater? What about judging your loan worthiness by how much your total assets are worth?

Hendricks tells WalletPop that if you're turned down for a loan because of any of these measures, you have the right to know and should be sent a letter detailing the reason for your rejection. Sometimes, though, companies don't always abide by this rule. As a consumer, it's in your best interest to ask questions. "If something happens where you're turned down and it doesn't add up, always ask," Hendricks says. "You have to be persistent. Don't hesitate to ask questions."
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