Your credit score determines a lot: Whether you get a loan or a credit card, and what interest rate you have to pay for that loan or credit card. Landlords look at it, insurers look at it and even employers look at it. So, what do you do when your credit report has an error on it?
That’s what Oregon resident Julie Miller was faced with back in 2009, when she discovered someone else's unpaid debts on her Equifax credit report.
"She found out when she went into her local bank and tried to get a credit line with her son and was denied," says Justin Baxter, Miller's attorney. "Julie has perfect credit. The other person, unfortunately, did not."
For the next two years, Miller tried to correct the mistake.
"She kept writing and they would just send her these form letters that said, 'Send us more proof of your identity,'” Miller says. “She would send them her driver’s license, her W2 statement and she would just get that form letter back, saying, 'Prove who you are.'"
Miller took Equifax to court, where a jury awarded her $18.6 million in damages. The size of the penalty is extraordinary, but having a mistake on your credit report isn’t, says Dave Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
"Oh yeah, it’s extremely common," he says. "They get account numbers mixed up, they get names mixed up."
Jones says nearly 25 percent of credit reports have errors. A Federal Trade Commission study this year found that five percent of the credit report errors could force consumers to pay more for loans and insurance.
And, correcting the mistakes can be difficult, says Liz Weston, author of "Your Credit Score."
"The big knock on the system is that it is so automated and it’s really hard to find a human being to help you," Weston says. "So if it isn’t a cut and dried issue, it can be really hard to get it straightened out."
The multi-million dollar fine Equifax has to pay might just help make it easier for consumers to correct mistakes, predicts Jones.
"I suspect all three of those bureaus are going to be seriously motivated now," he laughs.
Julie Miller’s attorney, Justin Baxter, says he has already gotten hundreds of emails from people wanting to file similar cases.
Equifax did not respond to requests for comment.