According to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission, 1 in 20 Americans have meaningful errors on their credit reports that need to be corrected. One major credit reporting bureau just paid a high price for failing to fix those errors.
Julie Miller of Marion County, Ore., says that she spent years trying to get Equifax to correct numerous errors in her credit report, including an incorrect Social Security number and false collections accounts. After Equifax repeatedly insisted that she needed to take up the issues with her "creditors," she finally sued the company in federal court.
This week, the court handed down a judgement that should come as a shot across the bow for the credit reporting industry: Equifax was ordered to pay Miller an unprecedented $18.6 million for its failure to correct the errors in her report.
Miller's attorney told ABC News that there were numerous factors that may have swayed the jury, including the fact that Miller tried multiple times to correct the report before filing her suit, as well as the privacy implications of the bureau mixing her report with that of another person.
But Miller's situation was by no means an isolated case.
"Most credit report disputes do get resolved fairly quickly, but there's certainly a subset of consumers who fight to get errors corrected and in some cases are unsuccessful," says Gerri Detweiler, a credit and personal finance expert at Credit.com. "Two of the most challenging types of dispute to clear up are mixed files, which is what this woman experienced, and fraud."
Detweiler adds that credit bureaus are currently dealing with an influx of people disputing accurate but negative information, so it's possible that Equifax dismissed this as frivolous complaint.
While the company is likely to appeal the ruling, the eye-opening size of the judgment is likely to make Equifax and other bureaus take a second look at the procedures they use to assess complaint. And Detweiler says that it should also be a wake-up call to consumers: If a credit bureau isn't working with you to correct the errors in your report, you should consider calling up a consumer law attorney who specializes in these issues. After seeing the size of this judgment, we're sure many of them would be happy to take your call.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.