11/28/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

To Correct My Credit Report, I Had to Prove I Was Not Someone Else

When my wife applied for pre-approval on a home mortgage loan, she learned there was a lien on my credit report -- as a result of someone else's $4,009.86 debt. Our mortgage lender called the courthouse where the creditor had filed the complaint. She was told that the judgment was filed against someone who had my name but nothing else of mine, including my phone number, address, or social security number.

My credit score, which had previously been 817, fell nearly 100 points, jeopardizing our mortgage loan. Even if the loan was approved, my credit score would affect the interest rate we would pay -- or the interest rate I would pay on every loan until the mistake was removed from my credit report.

To correct the problem, I merely had to prove I was not someone else.

The other "me" had made no attempt to steal my identity. I wasn't a victim of identify fraud. I was a victim of something entirely different: the reckless and shadowy world of credit reporting.

I'm not alone. Nearly 90 percent of consumers found inaccurate or erroneous information on their credit report, American Consumer Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization that provides free credit counseling, reported in September. A month later, Anne Tergesen, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, reported that other studies have found that up to 80 percent of credit reports have errors, which, Tergesen said, can lower consumers' credit scores enough to penalize them financially.

After a yearlong investigation, The Columbus Dispatch uncovered "systematic flaws in the data collection and dispute resolution process used by the credit bureaus." The Dispatch said that consumers who find errors in the credit reports can face months of frustration. While consumers wait for their errors to be corrected, the newspaper said, they are denied credit cards, mortgages, and car loans or forced to pay much higher interest rates.

I started receiving harassing phone calls from a debt collection agency about two years ago. The voice on the other end of the phone, who refused to identify himself beyond what was probably a phony first name, insisted I was a delinquent in my debt even though none of the information he had on the "other me" was the same as mine. The calls persisted. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor refused to give me either his full name or identify the company for which he worked.

When the creditor filed a judgment against me, I was not contacted, perhaps because my address was different from the address of the "other me." I would've learned about the problem earlier if I had been regularly checking my credit report, as recommended.

Once I learned about the lien on my credit report, I sent registered letters disputing the claim to the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Experian and Equifax responded by saying they would investigate. Within ten days, they informed me that they had deleted the claim from my files.

When I called the number on the TransUnion website to follow through on my dispute, I reentered the shadowy world of credit reporting, where no one has full names and you're guilty until proven otherwise. I spoke to five different people, including two who identified themselves as supervisors. To no avail.

I then contacted TransUnion's corporate office and got in touch with someone who understood what was clearly obvious. The matter was resolved a week later. Kind of. My credit score increased to nearly 800. But the false judgment remained on my credit report.

The Columbus Dispatch said that the credit bureaus, including the big three reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- could fix the problem if they wanted. If they don't want to, lawmakers should require them to do so. Consumers should not have to prove they're not someone else. That responsibility should lie with the creditors and the credit reporting companies.