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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Who Knows Your Secrets? Part 1: From Little Sister to Big Brother

Years ago, the best way to keep your personal information truly private was to hide the key to your Barbie® diary or leather journal in a safe place to protect against the prying eyes of your precocious little sister.  


In our adult years, we might assume that most of the information about us "out there" (photos, posts on social networking sites, blogs, etc.) is material we've put into the world ourselves. Beyond that, our biggest concerns tend to be the information purloined from our trash cans and computers (and those of big companies) by identity thieves. In this blog, we've often discussed the variety of ways to protect yourself from identity theft:

Will The Real Paper Doll Please Stand Up?
A Boy Named Sue May Hate His Name (but that doesn't mean you can steal it!)
The Big OUCH!!! (Medical Identity Theft--Part 1)
Doctor, It Hurts When Total Strangers Do This! (Medical Identity Theft, part 2)
Lost and Found: GONE in 6 seconds: Your Wallet!
What's In Your Wallet? (Part 3): A Little Insurance Policy

We've also repeatedly touted the importance of checking your credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies, either directly:

Equifax                         800-397-3742
Experian                       800-525-6285
Trans-Union                  800-680-7289

or via the truly-free AnnualCreditReport.com (and NOT via the pirate-hat-wearing, infectiously-cute-jingle-singing "Free"CreditReport.com" guys ). And just recently, we reviewed the importance of purchasing and reviewing your FICO score and knowing how your score is determined so you can improve your numbers.

But all of this advice begs the question:  while you're busy trying to hide access to all of this information from the bad guys, and checking the accuracy of what the alleged (and I'm using the term loosely) good guys have to report about your financial activities--who ELSE has private information about you? 

And I'm not just talking about your college roommate or your personal physician. There are two big issues at hand regarding who has found the key to your grown-up Barbie® diary:

1)  Who is allowed to get access to your credit report?


2)  What other information is being collected about all of us, and by whom?

At the risk of going all George Orwell on my readers (and having all the Paper Doll posts deleted from the internet, as his books were removed from Kindles this summer), it's hard to deny: Big Brother is watching.

With regard to the first question, it might surprise you to know who is allowed to get access to your credit report. While we may argue against whether it's fair that an possibly-arbitrary algorithm determines our creditworthiness, we don't often discuss (or even realize) all the ways our credit reports are used to evaluate us as we go about our daily lives--in ways that don't even necessarily have to do with whether we are creditworthy to buy a home or vehicle.

Section 604 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act allows credit reports to be accessed for a variety of purposes. As summarized by the Electronic Privacy Information Center:
  • Applications for credit, insurance, and rentals for personal, family or household purposes.
  • Employment, which includes hiring, promotion, reassignment or retention. A CRA [consumer credit reporting agency] may not release a credit report for employment decisions without consent.
  • Court orders, including grand jury subpoenas
  • "Legitimate" business needs in transactions initiated by the consumer for personal, family, or household purposes
  • Account reviews. Periodically, banks and other companies review credit files to determine whether they wish to retain the individual as a customer.
  • Licensing (professional)
  • Child support payment determinations
  • Law enforcement access: Government agencies with authority to investigate terrorism and counterintelligence have secret access to credit reports
Given the ostensible purpose of credit reports, some of these make immediate sense. Applications for credit certainly require an evaluation of creditworthiness. As your diary-key-purloining little sister way say, "Duh!". Account reviews, since they don't adversely impact the credit score and because one can opt-out of such reviews, may seem logical, as they help institutions determine if they will tender us offers of (increased) credit. And one can understand how child support payment determinations might depend on the provision of complete and unbiased financial records.

However, it gives Paper Doll pause to think that potential employers may make judgments about one's suitability to create an advertising campaign, run a forklift or ask "Do you want fries with that?" based upon the number, dollar amount and payment history of your credit card and medical bills. As a professional organizer, I certainly encourage responsible and timely payments of debts, but I'm dubious that late payments of bills are realistic predictors of on-the-job behavior in most professions and industries. (In the words of the Monk theme song, I could be wrong...but I don't think so.)

It's possible that for positions requiring a high governmental, financial or corporate security clearance, a thorough background check would be required to ensure that a job applicant might not be bribed into acquiescing to inducements to spy or leak information. (More on background checks, next week!) But credit reports, in the absence of other deep-background research, might be unlikely to serve as a crystal ball for determining someone's ability to handle sensitive information.

According to Smart Money Magazine, at the start of this decade, up to 92% of the top 100 automobile insurance companies were using credit reports to determine whether to underwrite new policies and how much to charge the policy-holders whom they did sign. With regard to how credit reports yield a determination of not just credit-worthiness, but insurance risk, one imagines there should be a research study -- indeed, multiple research studies -- detailing some sort of correlation between how many fender-benders one has been in and how much one owes to American Express, but insurance experts seem to be keeping mum on how they know such a correlation exists. (This industry-wide belief is the basis of insurance credit scoring, which we'll be discussing later in this series.)

It's unclear what kind of professional licensing might be best served by giving licensing boards access to credit reports. In the absence of a criminal or civil lawsuit, or claims of some kind of improper behavior, would a licensing board really be able to determine professional suitability to be a pharmacist, attorney, or physician, based solely upon an individual's credit payment history? Even a certified public accountant with a bad credit history doesn't necessarily lack the requisite knowledge to complete your taxes just because he's inept at getting his own bills paid. (What was that about the cobbler's children going barefoot?)

With regard to all of the above bulleted categories except the last, the credit reporting agencies (i.e., credit bureaus) can and must report to you regarding who has requested to view your information. With regard to law enforcement access, however, it's interesting to note that while the Attorney General must report (twice per year) to Congress regarding whose credit reports have been sought by the FBI, we as consumers are not allowed to know (nor are the credit bureaus allowed to tell us) if the FBI has requested and viewed our credit reports.

Indeed, under the USA Patriot Act, the FBI, CIA, the Department of Defense and other counter-intelligence agencies can issue a National Security Letter requesting access to your credit report, and the credit bureaus are not permitted to alert you to this fact.

Paper Doll is neither a consumer law expert nor enough of a scholar of macro- or microeconomics to have a public opinion on whether these legal non-credit uses for the information in our own credit reports are, or should be considered, necessary or appropriate. The Barbie® diary example actually comes back into play. Obviously, annoying little siblings should never be able to peek at the content of our diaries (just as identity thieves should never be able to access private financial data). However, there's certainly vigorous debate among parents as to whether there are legitimate reasons to breach the privacy of their teens in order to protect them (or, by extension, others) from danger.

I offer no opinion. However, I think it's important that, as consumers, we know what paper trails we've (perhaps unwittingly) left out there in the world, and who might be following them.

Credit reports are not the only collections of personal information on display. In the coming posts in this series, we'll look at the financial, medical and behavioral data about each of us being tracked, like:
  • Who tells retailers if that check you've written is any good?
  • Who maintains a database regarding your risk as a homeowner's and auto insurance policy holder?
  • Who keeps track of what kind of apartment renter you have been or may be?
  • Who (besides your doctor and your insurance company) is keeping tabs on the procedures you've had done and the medicines you've been prescribed?
  • Who knows that you return most of your birthday presents for cash or don't bother to try outfits on, figuring you'll just return what doesn't fit?
  • Who (besides Miss Meanyface, your third grade teacher) keeps track of your permanent record?
  • Who knows if you were arrested for protesting the Vietnam War or South African apartheid?
Knowing who collects the information is only the first step in knowing which of our secrets are out there. We'll also talk about how to access the information in your various profiles (i.e., how to see your own diary) to verify accuracy--to prevent identity theft, save money and safeguard your reputation.

See you next week. Until then...please don't keep Paper Doll a secret.

posted on: 10/20/2009 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Janet Barclay on 11/6/2009 10:29:13 AM:

When I worked for the government, we would request credit reports as part of the social assistance eligibility review process. Often we would learn about employment earnings or other income that were not disclosed on their application for assistance.

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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