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On Your Side

Can a Typo Hurt Your Credit Score?

How a clerical error turned into one woman's credit nightmare

Ron Burley

Consumer expert Ron Burley — Photo by Art Streiber

It sounds far-fetched — an attorney files a client's bankruptcy papers using the wrong Social Security number and ends up ruining an innocent person's credit. Yet that's what happened to Doris Hart of Bainbridge, Georgia.

Hart's troubles began in March, when a vendor refused her Visa card. Her account had been closed, she learned, "because my credit report indicated I filed for bankruptcy." But she hadn't. In fact, until then she'd had a nearly perfect credit rating.

Turns out K. Todd Butler, a lawyer in Cairo, Georgia, transposed two digits of another woman's Social Security number in a bankruptcy filing. That wrong number was Hart's, and somehow that alone led credit agencies to conclude she was down-and-out. Hart made countless calls and spent more than $200 on certified letters to creditors, credit agencies, and the courts to straighten things out. A friend helped her find the errant filing by Butler — who, she says, told her not to worry. The state bar dismissed Hart's complaint about the error.

When I called Butler, he agreed to pay Hart $200. But his check came with a letter stipulating that by cashing the check she waived any future claims. She demurred.

Hart ultimately restored her credit, but she and her husband, Charles, decided to sign up for credit monitoring, to let them know if the bogus bankruptcy resurfaced. I told Doris's story to a contact at Bank of America, and even though the Harts are not customers, the bank enrolled them in its monitoring program free for two years, saving them about $600.

New consumer rules took effect last summer (too late for Hart) that can help if you're ever the victim of a credit snafu. "Now agencies must act promptly — within 30 days in most cases — to verify the information or remove it," says Rebecca Kuehn, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission.

Read a new On Your Side column twice a month at our Money Channel.

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