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Here’s Why the Accuracy of Credit Reports is so Important

April 6, 2020 by Donna Smith, Chief Data Officer at Experian

Recently, I had the privilege to serve on a panel during a joint workshop held by the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine the accuracy of credit reports and how to best serve consumers.  During the workshop and in following written comments, I shared Experian’s commitment to advance accuracy in consumer credit information and our perspective on how the current regulatory environment supports our efforts to achieve continual improvements.

At the workshop, we heard concerns about how inaccuracies in credit reports can impact consumers and businesses in terms of denial of credit or higher-priced credit.  For Experian, these are real concerns.  Our role as a credit reporting agency is to help facilitate fair and affordable credit to consumers and small businesses, and that’s why data accuracy is mission-critical and central to our corporate values.

Since the workshop was held in Washington, DC, it’s no surprise that many stakeholders turned to the topic of reforming the existing regulatory system.  Some stakeholders focused on making systemic changes in law and regulation, such as by setting very strict matching standards when credit bureaus receive and issue credit reports.  But experience shows us that the current legal and regulatory standards are, indeed, appropriate and we don’t need a sledgehammer to hit a nail.  Such actions would have unintended negative consequences and are unnecessary when all stakeholders share the goal of ensuring access to credit.

In fact, the central theme I reinforced at the workshop was that the CFPB’s existing supervisory and examination authority, combined with market demand, industry investment and consumer expectations are the most effective ways to continually improve accuracy of credit reports.

Let me explain how my over 30 years of experience with Experian leads me to this conclusion.  Consumer reporting agencies, like Experian, are regulated by the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA requires that consumer reporting agencies “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” when assembling credit reports. Notably, this standard does not set an accuracy rate but appropriately recognizes the complexity brought about by a system with thousands of stakeholders (lenders, users of credit reports, and credit reporting companies reporting billions of pieces of information on hundreds of millions of consumers).

It’s been more than eight years since we last saw comprehensive studies to determine the accuracy of credit reports. The two most cited are reports from the Policy and Economic Research Council (“PERC”) and FTC. One of the key findings in both studies was the percentage of consumers that were impacted by material errors in their credit report. In other words, errors that resulted in credit score changes that impacted the interest rate a consumer would pay on a loan.  Both studies found that a small percentage of credit reports, 0.5% in the PERC Study and 2.2% in the FTC report, had material errors. While the percentages do represent many consumers (a minimum of 2.5 million to 4.4 million consumers) they also highlight the important need for continuous improvement so that material and consequential errors are the focus of innovation in data integrity.  We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we need to hone in on targeted and discrete changes.  That’s my job at Experian, and I’m passionate about it.

In addition to the “maximum possible accuracy” standard, market incentives provide another powerful mechanism to ensure improved data accuracy. Users of credit reports – ranging from banks to employers to government agencies – rely on accurate data to make critical decisions every day about loans, employment access, government benefits, and other important matters. Lenders need accurate data to perform sound risk assessments and provide terms tailored to the borrower’s appropriate risk level.  As a result, credit reporting agencies compete to have the most reliable and accurate data.  The same is true of lenders reporting data on their customers, as they have incentives to maintain good consumer relationships. Further, if inaccurate data is reported by a lender or maintained by a credit reporting agency, we all spend more time responding to consumer disputes instead of investing in new products and services to help consumers.  It’s easy to see why inaccurate data just isn’t good for business!

Since the FTC and PERC accuracy studies were completed, the regulatory environment for credit reporting has drastically changed. In 2012, the CFPB began to supervise and examine the credit reporting industry. This regulatory authority allows the CFPB to see the entire credit ecosystem that is composed of not only credit bureaus, but also lenders, other users of credit reports, and entities that furnish data to credit bureaus.  CFPB’s comprehensive and continuous examination procedures include directly reviewing the policies, procedures, and practices of major credit reporting agencies. These steps include reviewing how data furnishers are screened, steps taken to minimize the likelihood of incorrect information on a report, measures to prevent duplicative information, and any programs designed to assess the accuracy of consumer information. These actions allow the CFPB to understand the metrics of accuracy and how it improves over time, and to apply the FCRA on a dynamic basis that can meet any challenges unforeseen when the law was originally passed. The CFPB’s supervisory authority thus serves as a powerful tool to holistically address data accuracy. In a 2017 supervisory report, the CFPB stated that “Credit reporting agencies have made significant advances to promote greater accuracy, the oversight of furnishers, and enhancements to the dispute resolution function.”

It’s also important that there are ongoing discussions among the credit bureaus about how to move accuracy forward. To that end, joint efforts by the credit reporting agencies pursuant to an agreement with a group of state attorneys general, resulted in a joint working group to look at what can be done collectively to agree on improvements to accuracy. Recent changes include the delayed reporting of medical debt to allow time for insurance to process payments, and the removal of judgment and tax lien information, which did not meet new, elevated standards. The joint working group continues to explore new ways of increasing the accuracy of credit data.

A broad, flexible, yet demanding legal structure, combined with strong market incentives and a robust and effective supervisory program, all work together to foster an environment to best serve consumers. As the consumer’s bureau, Experian is committed to playing a leading role in furthering a strong and accurate credit reporting system.

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