Data protection: Credit agencies nail wrong man: A retired professor was disturbed to find that reference firms carried false information about him (CORRECTED)

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ROBERT GREEN, a retired psychology professor from London, was appalled to find that when he checked his financial records with Britain's four credit reference agencies they carried details of two credit cards he did not have, claimed he had an account with a store he had never heard of and had changed his sex.

Professor Green is one of thousands of people who complain every year about the information held on file about their financial affairs. Of the 4,000 complaints made to the Data Protection Registrar, the agency that monitors the use of information held on computer, about half concern the credit reference agencies.

Professor Green applied for an Amnesty International affinity card from Co-op Bank in November last year. The bank turned him down because it was not happy about his credit references. He was told that the agency used was CCN Systems in Nottingham.

He wrote off to find out what it was they held on his file. When he received the details he found that according to the reference agency he had credit cards with M & S, Sears and had an account with the Empire Stores. He said: 'I have never had credit cards with either M & S or Sears and I have never heard of Empire Stores.'

Also on file were accurate details of a county court judgment against Professor Green that had ended with him paying out pounds 415 compensation in a dispute he had with holiday-makers who rented a villa he owns in Turkey. He was told that the judgment, which was made last year, would remain on his records for six years.

A letter from CCN to Professor Green reveals that disgruntled members of the public can dispute the records held on them, but they have to prove them to be wrong. The letter said: 'Responsibility for maintaining the accuracy of such information lies with the subscriber. This is why any grievance or query concerning the information, which they own, should be directed towards them.'

Professor Green said: 'It becomes a notice of correction on your files.' Out of interest he also contacted the other three credit referencing agencies to find out what they held.

Equifax carried details of the judgment and claimed he had Sears and M & S cards. It also said that he had an account with a company called Kaleidoscope. 'Who are they?' he asked. Infolink said he had an M & S card and detailed the court judgment.

CDMS did not carry any details of the credit cards, but had a court judgement against a Mrs R T Green on file. He said: 'It was for the right amount.' Professor Green added a notice of correction to all the files held by the different credit agencies.

The Data Protection Registrar said that it constantly monitored the use of information held by credit reference agencies. It had succeeded in changing the way that the agencies kept information.

Originally information was held on the basis of address, so consumers could be turned down for credit because of the activities of people they did not even know. Last year the Data Protection Registrar succeeded in having this changed and it is now illegal to store information in this way.

Phil Boyd, compliance manager at the Data Protection Registrar, said that the credit reference agencies were obliged to ensure that the information they held on people was accurate, but they had had to rely on the quality of the information passed on by third parties.

He said that the registrar was also trying to bring in guidelines covering the use of all information held on customers by all financial institutions, regardless of whether the information is detrimental.

The registrar proposes that people should be told that detrimental information, so called 'black' information, is being recorded with a credit reference agency. It is also proposing to ban finance companies from passing on information about customer accounts, 'white information', to credit reference agencies without specific consent.

Tony Mallin, Finance & Leasing Association chairman, said: 'It is a fraudsters' charter. People will be able to take out several loans, well beyond their means or intention to repay. They will know that by refusing to give consent there will be no record of the amount they already owe.'

A recent survey carried out by Which? found that of the credit files held on the magazine's 40 employees, three held inaccurate information, one had information about previous occupants at the researcher's address, and one had information about relatives of the researcher.

Which? has sent the findings of the research to the Data Protection Registrar with a request that he looks at the procedures for checking the accuracy of the agencies' files.


Searscard has asked us to state that contrary to our 20 March report on credit reference agencies, the account holder featured in the article had applied for a Searscard, and this had been correctly reported to a credit reference agency. We apologise for the error.

(Photograph omitted)