Equifax Credit Information Services Inc. has signed an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to settle a four-year-old dispute over alleged violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The FTC initiated an investigation of the Atlanta-based credit bureau in 1990. It eventually charged Equifax with several violations of the act.

The regulator made a broad claim that Equifax failed to assure the maximum possible accuracy of the consumer credit information it compiles, and that Equifax failed to properly investigate information contained in consumer reports when it was disputed by consumers.

Equifax was also charged with providing consumer reports to companies that did not have a legal right to obtain such information.

Other FTC charges included that Equifax did not promptly delete inaccurate or unverified information from consumer reports and that it provided consumer reports with outdated derogatory information.

Under the consent agreement, Equifax must investigate consumer complaints within 30 days. If the credit bureau does not meet such criteria, the disputed information must be deleted until it is verified.

Equifax says that it has corrected the problems cited in the consent agreement. A spokesman for the credit bureau said, "The instances mentioned in the allegations are, first of all, rare, and have been addressed."

Furthermore, said the spokesman, signing the FTC agreement will not change anything in the way Equifax currently does business.

Equifax was not singled out. The other two major credit bureaus were targets of similar regulatory scrutiny in recent years.

TRW Information Systems and Services Inc. of Orange, Calif., entered into a consent decree in 1991, and Trans Union Corp. of Chicago has been challenging FTC charges.

The FTC sued Trans Union in 1993 to make it stop selling lists of consumers to direct marketers. Trans Union has a federal appeal pending.

Equifax's proposed consent agreement is subject to a public comment period of 60 days.

The settlement is not an admission of guilt or violation of any laws.

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