Did Equifax Sell You Out to Debt Collectors?

Get ready for your morning coffee spit-take. A company called The Work Number, which is owned by the credit-reporting company Equifax, has allegedly been selling your personal income data – including pay-stub data and information about healthcare providers and unemployment filings – to third-party debt collectors. Let that sink in for a second. Consider that while lots of companies profit off the sale of personal data, the end result is usually some form of targeted advertising, not a financial hit man knocking down your door.

The Work Number’s database is huge – at last check it covered over 30% of the U.S. workforce. There’s a 1-in-3 chance that you’re in the system. Here’s the problem, though: whatever is happening here, it seems to be legal. Bob Sullivan at NBC News broke the story, and as journalists scrambled to make sense of it all (we’re trying, we’re trying) several ‘buts” came to light.

First of all, Equifax denies that their subsidiary company actually sells salary data. In a statement, the company says: “The Work Number does not provide debt collectors with salary/pay rate/income information. They can request only employment verification data which The Work Number will provide if there is permissible purpose, as detailed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).” Yet in a sales pamphlet, the company brags about how much their data improves results for creditors who go after student debtors, and in an interview, Equifax CEO Richard Smith said that Equifax had used employment data to help debt collection companies decide which accounts to go after first. He also acknowledged that Equifax companies “can provide information about a debtor’s location, income and employment.”

Frankly, we’ve tried to figure this out, and we can’t. Equifax spokesman Timothy Klein can deny that salary data is sold to debt collectors (while affirming that “pay rate” info is made available), and Katrina Blodgett, an FTC lawyer, can opine that salary data may be considered part of a normal credit report, making it easy to access. That’s all in the NBC piece, so let’s just say that it’s unclear, for the moment, just what data debt collectors have access to.

You know, hey. Look. Sometimes we sign off on certain things when we apply for a financial product. Fine print is small, few of us speak legalese and it’s pointless to sit here and try to guess how exactly we’re being screwed and which loopholes are enabling it. Besides, there’s something more interesting to worry about. It seems that a lender or debt collector can gain access to at least some of The Work Number’s data by just claiming to have permission, and if that’s going on, that should make you downright mad.

A mortgage fraud investigator who would only go by Carol spoke to The Consumerist last week and pointed out something odd about the Equifax consent process: “As part of obtaining income information, you click a box acknowledging that you have authorization to obtain the information. But at no point are you actually required to provide that authorization.” Occasionally The Work Number will ask for verification, she said, but only after the fact and only occasionally.

Soooo. In conclusion, yes you’re being screwed. We all are, all of the time. We never know quite how or why, and that’s just how the world works. Thankfully, there’s a complaint department for that, and it’s called “your congressperson.” Write to him or her, as some others apparently already have. Members of Congress have written Equifax CEO Richard Smith to demand some clarity, and you can bet that we’ll be anxiously awaiting his response. Because while better intel leads to more effective stalking, it’s a real kick in the groin to know that a faceless entity is getting rich by selling your secrets.