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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEBTTHE HORROR STORY OF A CREDIT RATING THAT WAS BAD IN EVERY RESPECT

Separated by a sturdy little Plexiglas window but with a small slit in the wall so they could exchange paperwork, the two men stood in their little cubicles and argued.

It was an uncomfortable situation, but Steven L. Brown was so angry he actually was glad he was not in the same room with the other man.

Brown, a forty-year-old town planner working in Cave Creek, was angrily pleading with an employee of Credit Data Southwest, telling him that the company had screwed up his credit rating. I am not a deadbeat, Brown kept repeating. If you would just look at the proof, he insisted, you'd see a mistake has been made.

"We're not responsible for the data," said the man behind the glass. "If you are disputing the report, our board meets every thirty days. You will be notified of the decision."

Brown could not wait thirty days. The Arizona Federal Credit Union had denied his $4,000 computer loan because of the credit rating. He needed the computer and the store was expecting the check that day.

Brown was recounting this Kafkaesque story in the comfort of a coffee shop, but French toast, coffee and a pleasant waitress had obviously not made it more comfortable to talk about. During the conversation, Brown thumped the table with his fingers. He rubbed his face and temples as if the stress of telling the story was the advent of a migraine.

His woes started January 22, when his wife, Joanna, stopped by the credit union on the way home from work, expecting to pick up a check. Instead, she received a note saying the Browns' loan application was denied because of a "delinquent credit" record that included a court judgment against her husband.

That night was the worst of their four-month-old marriage, Joanna Brown recalls. "We didn't talk," she says. "When we did talk, we fought. It was awful."

Steve told her the report wasn't true. He told her he wanted their money pulled from the credit union. Any place that wouldn't loan him money didn't deserve to have his deposits. Joanna told him she would not pull money from an institution with which she had a five-year relationship.

Then there was a matter of trust. They were married September 28, 1990, and had only known each other since May. Both were in their forties and previously divorced.

Her only previous experience with a credit-reporting agency was a few years before when she had purchased a home. That report had been accurate, and she had gotten the money. Concerning this report on her new husband, she says, "I just assumed that everything in the credit report was true. I thought he owed the money."

Steve was furious. His honesty, reputation and marriage were on the line. "I didn't know what she was thinking," he recalls. "We told each other about our pasts before we got married. Now, all of a sudden, she doesn't know who I am."

She was to find out the next day. They both took the day off work and drove to the credit agency at Third Street and Virginia to get the report. Sure enough, it was the wrong Steven L. Brown. They got the number of the court judgment and sped off to Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix. They got copies of the court documents and drove to the lawyer's office listed on them.

The attorney gave them the address of another Steven L. Brown. They drove to his office at the Baptist Foundation on West Osborn Road, where they got a letter saying Credit Data Southwest had the wrong Steve Brown. And back they ran to Credit Data Southwest. It was after 2 p.m. when they arrived. They had been driving, running and hunting for six hours.

That's when Steve (the town planner) met the man behind the glass.
Steve showed him the court documents. A Steven L. Brown had been in an auto accident two years ago and was sued. But there hadn't been a judgment in that case. In fact, that case against the Steven L. Brown who works for the Baptist Foundation was dismissed with prejudice--meaning it couldn't be refiled.

Steven (the town planner) tried to explain this to the man behind the glass. Even the dates didn't match. The credit report listed the judgment as being made in March 1990. The case had been thrown out four months before in December 1989, according to the court papers. The man behind the glass was unmoved.

Then Steve pointed out that the credit report listed the financial dealings of yet another Steven Brown. This third Steven Brown was not him, he explained. "I am Steven L. Brown," he insisted to the man behind the glass. "This says `Steven P. Brown.'" Steven P. Brown was listed in the report as living in Maynard, Massachusetts, as late as December 1990. Steven L. Brown has lived in Arizona for several years.

The man behind the glass remained impassive.
Recalling his anger and frustration, Steve says, "They just made wild accusations and then told me to prove they are wrong."

That's exactly what Steve did--he proved them wrong, and the Arizona Federal Credit Union approved the loan.

But weeks later, Credit Data Southwest still wasn't convinced. When first asked by New Times about Steve's case, Credit Data Southwest president Clark Huber said the report was correct and Steve (the town planner) owed the court judgment. When told that the court documents showed it was the wrong person and that the case had been thrown out anyway, Huber conceded that his company might have the wrong man.

Huber said he gets all his facts from TRW, which operates a national credit-reporting agency. He contended that TRW follows strict guidelines and uses only information with matching street addresses and social security numbers. Although sometimes, he acknowledged, mistakes are made. "Occasionally, when you get into the files, the same information has been reported the same on each of the individuals," Huber explained. In the Steve Brown case, however, there were neither matching street addresses nor social security numbers, according to court documents and the credit report itself.

When asked if people with a common name like Brown occasionally get shuffled together, Huber rejected the theory. "No," he said flatly.

That's baloney, says Chuck Ehm, an examiner for the National Credit Union Association in Austin, Texas. He says credit-reporting agencies match by names and frequently make mistakes. "This has been going on for centuries," says Ehm. "People with common names are always being mixed up. Until there's a system that totally uses social security numbers, we'll continue to see this problem. That's why credit reports should only be used as a guide by lending institutions."

That's what the Arizona Federal Credit Union finally did--thanks to Steve Brown's own hard work. But Steve is still waiting for an answer from Credit Data Southwest. (Clark Huber tells New Times: "Apparently, we're talking about a different individual. We'll check this. The law requires us to go check this.")

Other Browns face the same mixups. Ironically, one of them is the Steven L. Brown who works for the Baptist Foundation. Six years ago, says that Brown, he couldn't close on a house because another Brown's bad credit rating was mixed up with his. That was cleared up, but Brown recently was told by his bank that they had inadvertently been using his mortgage payment to pay off a loan for a Steve Brown who lives in Tucson.

"It comes with the territory of having the name Steve Brown," he says with a laugh. "I'm one of a million."

But he's trying to make sure his children don't inherit his problem.
Did he name either of his sons "Steve" Brown? "No way," he replies. "Colin and Shannon."

Steve was furious. His honesty, reputation and marriage were on the line.

"This has been going on for centuries. People with common names are always being mixed up.

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J. W. Casserly