WASHINGTON — Consumers disputed up to 38 million items on their consumer credit reports last year at the three largest consumer reporting agencies, according to a report released Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Exactly how many of those issues were resolved is unclear, but the report was the first attempt by the consumer agency to collect details on the nation's largest credit agencies: Equifax Information Services, Experian Information Solutions and TransUnion.
"Credit reporting is a critical market at the heart of our lending systems," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a press call Wednesday. "Given its enormity, given its influence over people's lives and given its wide impact on our overall economy, you can see that there is much at stake in ensuring that it works properly for consumers."
Though the CFPB cautioned it was not drawing conclusions from the 48-page report, the statistics revealed deep fractures in the accuracy of the massive credit reporting system.
For example, the three largest agencies were contacted 8 million times by consumers about disputed items in their credit report last year. These disputes vary, including allegations of mismatched personal information to identity theft to inaccurate debt collections.
Most of those disputes, or nearly 40%, were linked to some form of debt collection. The study also found that consumers were the main group watching for accuracy of the reports, which is concerning since only one in five people check their reports in a given year.
"We found the information provided by the collections or debt-buying industry is more likely to be questioned by a consumer than, say, the data from their mortgage lender," Cordray said. "In fact, the information provided by the collections industry is five times more likely to be disputed than mortgage information."
How the credit agencies handle the disputes is also a "source of controversy," the report said. The agencies most often send the disputes back to the original data provider, called a "furnisher," which includes banks and credit card companies, through an automated system of simple codes. The furnishers are required by law to investigate the disputes and then accurately report back to the agencies.
But the agencies rarely give the furnisher any paper documentation that the consumer provides and have only resolved disputes themselves about 15% of the time.
The CFPB said in the report that it has begun looking at how banks furnish information to the consumer reporting agencies when supervising the large banks.
"Most of the information provided to the credit reporting companies comes from a few large companies, such as big banks," Cordray said. "This means credit cards are given great weight in credit profiles — a lesson that consumers could end up learning the hard way."
Accurate credit information is critical because companies use these credit reports when a consumer applies for a loan, apartment or employment.
But banks and credit card companies dominate the 10,000 furnishers that provide consumer information to the agencies, according to the CFPB's report. These furnishers report on more than 1.3 billion consumer credit accounts on a monthly basis to the agencies, which hold credit files of more than 200 million adults.
With high volumes of consumer information passing through and disputes left hanging, it can become difficult for a lender to know when a particular item is under a dispute that's not affiliated to them. A miscalculated credit score can impair whether the consumer gets a loan or how much the applicant will pay in interest.
However, the CFPB cautioned that the amount of "material inaccuracies" in credit reports "is uncertain" since there are "conflicting reports" and their study was not verified by its supervisory authorities. Instead, the bureau referred to a decade-long study on credit reporting accuracy that the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to release by year's end.