After each new identity theft scandal, credit bureaus scramble to offer customers the latest tips to protect their personal information from being stolen, misused, or abused. Yet some of the biggest dangers to Americans' personal information come from the credit bureaus and consumer reporting agencies (CRA's) themselves.The three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union -- all offer comprehensive, and expensive, "identity protection" packages, which claim to insure the user from damages incurred by misuse of their personal data and issue notifications of fraud to creditors and other agencies who view consumers' credit on a regular basis. Yet many Americans find themselves threatened with collection or unable to obtain credit due to a credit bureau's mistakes. The major CRA's consistently fail to report accurate information, change credit ratings based on erroneous data, and often “mix up” customers' information, resulting in innocent consumers being harrassed or penalized for actions they did not commit. Moreover, as Consumers' Union pointed out recently, “When a company improperly breaches a consumer's sensitive information, the onus is on that consumer – the victim – to fix the problem.” Customers have to contact the credit bureau and attempt to prove that they were not responsible for the actions committed using their identity, a process made more difficult by the lack of direct contact options most credit bureaus provide. ConsumerAffairs.Com receives a constant stream of complaints from irate customers regarding credit bureaus' inability — or unwillingness — to protect the personal information of the very people they claim to assist. Experian Larry W., a computer support specialist from Centreville, Virginia, ordered his credit report from FreeCreditReport.com, a subsidiary of Experian. He was shocked to find that his personal information was gone and replaced with someone else's, one Lawrence W. of nearby Woodbridge, Va. His own name was listed as an alias, and he had access to all of the other man's personal records. “All of my information was mixed in with his, and still is,” he says. He tried contacting Experian multiple times to address the error, and was told he could only change the information via their online dispute form, which encountered errors every time he tried to make changes. Larry is considering seeking legal counsel to resolve the issue and correct the changes. A similar circumstance befell John P., of Laurel, Delaware, in June of 2004. Experian mixed his identity with two other individuals who owed high levels of credit card debt, thus leaving John to be harassed by creditors and collection agencies constantly. “I have sent a certified letter to Experian, and I've made a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission ... I still can't seem to get this cleared,” he said. The most common complaint from Experian customers revolves around “mixed identity” information on their reports, such as placing another person's credit obligations on their report, and the inability to contact any company representative to make changes. Any user wishing to confirm or change their data, or to use Experian's identity protection services, must first purchase a credit report and create a log-in account, thus ensuring that the company makes its money and has access to your information. In addition, Experian charges merchants or vendors any time it reports changes to a customer's account, perhaps explaining why customers' data is so often inaccurate or out of date. Trans Union Robert S., of Victorville, California, was a victim of Bank of America's recent loss of customer data tapes. He placed a “fraud alert” on his accounts, and yet, when he tried to purchase a cell phone for his elderly mother some time later, he found that he was denied credit because the phone vendor couldn't verify his identity with Trans Union. “The home telephone number Trans Union has on file for me is incorrect, and US Cellular is unable to verify my credit...My mother's safety is paramount in my mind, and the block Trans Union is providing could directly impact on her safety, should she need emergency service.” Trans Union, like Equifax, requires customers to purchase their products in order to verify their information, such as their “ID Fraud Watch”, which costs customers $43 per year. The “ID fraud watch” claims to offer comprehensive protection to users, including weekly “fraud watch” emails and regular access to a Trans Union credit report. Such conveniences are cold comfort to Mike R. of San Francisco. Mike was impersonated by an identity thief in a contact with MBNA, and Trans Union reported the activity as a “hard” credit inquiry on his report, thus lowering his credit score. Despite Mike's citing of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which demands creditors investigate inquiries, Trans Union did nothing about the new inquiry. In Mike's words, “[Trans Union] would not accept that [it] had any statutory responsibility to investigate the accuracy of some types of disputed information on consumer credit reports.” Equifax Equifax customers recite a litany of failures to update personal data, mixing customers' reports and exposing their personal information, and an unwillingness to admit fault, let alone solve any issues. Meanwhile, their product line spotlights the Equifax Credit Watch Gold product, which offers daily credit alerts and unlimited credit reports for the token fee of $99.95 for twelve months. William C., of Gresham, Oregon, suffered heavy business losses and increased insurance rates when Equifax mixed his identity information with another individual, who had a different Social Security number and numerous derogatory entries on their report, thus damaging William's credit. “I proceeded to provide the correct information. Following this, Equifax proceeded to enter my correct SSN into the same incorrect old report and issue it out again and again.” Another Equifax customer signed up for their “credit alert” service to receive notifications of major activity or changes to their credit file, only to find that “[w]hile I received their advertisements regularly, I never received a single alert even when I generated several credit activities where I know the lender used Equifax.” What You Can Do On April 13th of this year, Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Platt Majoras testified that “the Commission receives between 15,000 and 20,000 contacts a week from victims of identity theft and consumers who want to learn how to avoid becoming a victim.” While many options exist to protect consumers' data from scam artists, “phishers”, and the like, what does one do when supposedly reputable credit agencies endanger their private information? ConsumerAffairs.Com's special report on understanding credit, Plastic Prison, offers some basic tips on dealing with credit bureaus. In addition, here are a few tactics to pursue when investigating cases of inaccurate information: • Get the right phone numbers. If you purchase a product from the three major credit agencies, you will be given a special toll-free number that grants you “member access” to its site. Don't bother with the numbers they give out publicly. Use the member access numbers to call them at all times. • Keep records of everything. Make copies of all documentation you send to credit bureaus. Send any documents via certified mail and request that the Post Office track it from delivery to receipt. Any faxes should be sent with transmission logs that verify the contents were sent properly. If you've purchased credit products from one of the three bureaus, save a copy of and/or print it out for future reference. Each report will have a number, and that number will be your only way to maintain your access to the “members only” part of any credit bureau's site. • Contact the authorities. Your local and state police, the utility companies you do business with, and the local and state governments should be made aware the minute you believe your identity has been compromised. Document any and every instance where inaccurate information on your credit report has caused you financial or legal hardship. • Keep your information secure! Don't give out your Social Security number unless you have to. Use specialized passwords when making any online transactions. Avoid using easily-obtainable information like your date of birth, your mother's maiden name, etc.