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Banned for a debt of pounds 32,000. But he didn't owe a penny

Blunder over Barclaycard application highlights doubts about accuracy of credit-vetting agencies
Jaz Stichaw could not believe his eyes. He had been turned down for a Barclaycard because he was pounds 32,000 in the red.

But Mr Stichaw had never once been in debt. A 32-year-old lawyer he had always been careful with his finances. Barclaycard had been informed that this was his financial status by the credit-reference agency Equifax and had turned down his application accordingly.

As a lawyer, Mr Stichaw knew what action to take, deciding to sue Equifax, eventually settling out of court. But for other people the way forward may not be so clear.

Credit-reference agencies have claimed that the mistakes they make account for less than 1 per cent. But the Data Protection Registrar is now considering investigating the accuracy of credit-reference agencies after a survey which suggested that errors on people's files may be far more common than previously thought.

Each week, nearly 400,000 people apply for credit - whether it is setting up a bank account, applying for a storecard or getting an interest-free loan on a car. Credit-reference files provide a snapshot of how a person manages their finances. Negative information about defaults of county court judgments for non-payment of debts stays on your record for six years and can lead to people being turned down.

There are three credit-reference agencies in Britain - Equifax, CCN and CDMS. Between them they hold 135 million files containing electoral roll information, public record information and information supplied by lenders.

A survey for tonight's edition of the Channel 4 programme, Dosh, found that a third of people had some sort of mistake on their files. Some were minor ones which could lead to confusion but others were serious which could lead to people being wrongly refused credit.

Of the 30 people who sent off for their files, 13 people found errors. These included mistakenly attributed court judgments, factual errors concerning mortgages and wrong residents at the wrong address.

More serious situations can result as Mr Stichaw found some time ago when his application for Barclaycard was turned down. "I was completely disgusted that Equifax had passed such information to Barclaycard because it was wrong and highly offensive," he said. "Equifax had told Barclaycard that I had over pounds 32,000 worth of debt and I was completely horrified because I'm careful about finances and I certainly had no debts.

"As a lawyer I recognised that that was slanderous. And because of that I issued a high court writ." The case was eventually settled out of court.

David Smith of the Data Protection Office said: "It's a slur on their character, they can't understand why it has happened. It's because of some personal information they have no control over. We get people phoning our office in tears about these decisions ... they really are important to people."

He said that the ombudsman was considering a feasibility study to look into the amount of errors creeping into files. "At present, we only see people who complain - these people know they have a problem," he said. "But others may not know if there are problems. If you apply for credit and get it you may be quite happy but it doesn't mean the information on your file is necessarily right. and it could affect you in future applications...

"There's a lot more credit-reference agencies could do to ensure the information is right."

Kevin Still, group marketing director for Equifax said: "The majority of errors occur in the information supplied to us, such as county court judgments or information supplied by the lenders themselves.

"We get 1,300 requests a day of which 20 per cent result in queries. Of those, several require detailed investigation and it is in the order of one, two or three need some change because there is a material error."