CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - You probably don't know it. But there are a lot more credit bureaus out there keeping tabs on how you spend your money than just the big three listed at AnnualCreditReport.com. A FOX19 investigation shows even when you do find out about these niche credit bureaus, they sometimes make it difficult to get a free annual report, as required by law, even as their data could prevent you from getting an apartment, new car, or job.
These niche credit bureaus are known as "nationwide specialty consumer reporting companies."
We began our investigation weeks ago when we discovered the hoops TeleCheck makes you go through to obtain your free report. You may have noticed that if you write a check these days at gas stations and grocery stores, the clerk often inserts the check into the register, scans it, and converts it into a transaction that automatically takes money out of your account, much like using a debit card. This is where TeleCheck comes in. For a fee, it processes these checks instantly for merchants.
A decade or so ago, when Americans each wrote dozens if not hundreds of checks a year, TeleCheck's system told the cashier whether she should accept your check. If you'd bounced a lot of them, you'd likely be declined. This has always been a big business. TeleCheck is owned by a multinational company called First Data that also owns Western Union, according to this letter to the Federal Trade Commission.
Being able to obtain credit reports from companies like this is important because many of their reports contain mistakes. You won't know about these errors, though, unless you're able to see the same information that shop owners, leasing companies, car dealers, and prospective bosses are looking at.
So one Saturday, we called the number listed on TeleCheck's website on a page titled "How to Request Your TeleCheck File Report." A federal law known as the "Fair Credit Reporting Act" requires companies like Telecheck to have a toll-free telephone number for annual report requests "clearly and prominently posted on any Web site owned or maintained" by the company.
However, when you dial the number listed on TeleCheck's webpage (800-366-2425) you're told that this is not the number for requesting your annual report. And if you call on the weekend, like we did, you're out of luck. The office that handles these requests is only open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. If you've been turned-over to TeleCheck for a collection attempt, though, they're happy to take your money on the weekend. We were told this after making two separate phone calls and getting two different customer service representatives on the line.
FOX19 immediately e-mailed First Data's media relations department to ask if we could interview someone over the phone about why the wrong number is displayed on TeleCheck's website and why consumers aren't able to request their annual report on the weekend.
Kwiyoung Baumgarten, the manager of communications at First Data, e-mailed us back the following Monday saying "We are looking into this and will not be able to accommodate an interview today. Aiming for a response tomorrow."
However, we didn't hear from him for several days. We e-mailed back inquiring again. Mr. Baumgarten never did give us a response.
We asked FOX19 financial analyst Nathan Bachrach why niche credit bureaus might make it hard for consumers to get this information.
"It's not easy because I don't think anybody's quite figured out yet what it means for their business… (and) whether or not anybody's going to use it," Bachrach said.
In fact, only one in five Americans requests to see their credit reports from the three main companies, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.
What's also troubling about TeleCheck is the maze of confusing recorded messages its telephone system makes you go through in order to obtain the free credit report. After you dial the number that's listed on TeleCheck's website, you must listen carefully to hear the keywords "annual report" to know which number to press. After several categories that don't pertain to you, a woman's recorded, hurried voice finally says "For assistance with reporting a forgery or bankruptcy, disputing a debt, obtaining a check copy or to request your annual file report press 4."
Did you get that? Hope so.
When you press 4, you hear more options. Now, the woman's voice tells you that you need to press 3 to continue requesting your annual report from TeleCheck.
But, oh, your trip through voicemail greeting hell isn't over yet!
"In order for TeleCheck to provide a comprehensive report," the woman's voice begins telling you, you need to have your Social Security number, bank account numbers, driver's license number, etc. If you're confused, she suggests you visit the same website you just came from in order to get more specific information about what's required. Then she suggests that the best way to get your annual report is by mailing TeleCheck all of this information along with a voided check and a copy of your current tax or utility bill.
Nothing like making it sound complicated so consumers won't bother, huh?
FOX19 verified again today that the recorded female voice never indicates that you can request your credit report over the phone, as the law requires. Instead, you're told that if you'd like to repeat the message, hit a certain button on your phone. To return to the previous fraud/bankruptcy menu, you press another button. Finally, at the end, she seems to reluctantly say that if you'd like to talk to a customer service representative you should press 1.
Did you notice that they didn't make it 0? Nothing's easy here in voicemail greeting hell.
Ok, so now you press 1, only to be put on hold while you wait for a customer service rep. Not too long after, someone comes on the line. Again, if you call on the weekend you're told that they're sorry but you need to call another number Monday through Friday. Even if you protest that you've called the number listed on the website, you're told again that he or she can't accommodate your request.
But if you call during the week, as FOX19 did today, you're asked to write down the correct number (800-366-1435) and told that the customer service rep is now transferring you to what he calls the "President's Office."
That doesn't sound intimidating does it?
From there, a real, live woman answered and in a very serious tone told us that the information we were requesting would include any returned checks that we've had over the previous year.
We said, "Ok." But the way she said it made us think, "Do we really want this information?" Then we thought, "Is this what TeleCheck wants us to be asking ourselves?"
The woman in the "President's Office" then took down our Social Security number, Ohio driver's license number, as well as the routing and bank account numbers found at the bottom of your checks. And finally, she told us we'll be getting the credit report from TeleCheck within seven to ten business days.
We went through all of this effort even though the federal government's new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent companies like TeleCheck a notice about a month ago informing them of their requirements under the law. The agency also wrote a blog post explaining all this in clearer language for consumers.
In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also put together a list of about 40 companies, like TeleCheck, that may owe you one free credit report each year. The list contains website addresses and phone numbers for help in getting your report from these companies.
When you first look at the list, you'll notice it's divided into categories like "Auto and property insurance history reports," "Rental," and even "Employment history reports." These particular companies can affect your car insurance rate, whether you are allowed to rent an apartment, or whether a potential boss thinks you'd be a good person to hire.
LexisNexis also has an applicant screening service for employers. A video on the company's website touts the time hiring managers can save by using its service.
CFIB says LexisNexis will provide consumers one free report every 12 months. However, it says Tenant Data Services will not provide you with a free report unless you've been turned down for an apartment or been evicted because of something in their company's files. For $9, though, the company will provide you with the information anytime.
So here's the good news: Washington's new consumer protection agency is letting us know for the first time that these niche credit reporting agencies are out there.
The bad news?
You may have to traverse voicemail greeting hell in order to get any information out of them.
UPDATE: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has now seen FOX19's story. However, a spokeswoman for the federal agency says they will not comment on what we found. She says if you believe you're being treated unfairly when you ask for your credit report, you may file a complaint here: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint. You may also call the agency at (855) 411-CFPB (2372). In addition, the CFPB is collecting stories from consumers here: https://help.consumerfinance.gov/app/tellyourstory. And be sure to let us know, too, by sending an e-mail to Matthew Nordin.