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Who Owns Your Credit Data?

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At this point, we’re used to the idea that companies collect information about us and use it to tailor advertising and all sorts of things we see in our social media feeds. It’s difficult to characterize how much data Internet users generate and how all that information is used, but there’s one thing of which you can be certain: It’s being used. A lot.

You also don’t have much control over your data. Unlike in the European Union, which gives individuals the right to delete or correct personal information online and prevents companies from transferring data to other companies, only some sets of U.S. consumer data are regulated. Outside of those rules, like the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, controlling consumer data is like a big, messy game of “finders keepers.”

Scoring Everything

There are thousands consumer scores out there (credit scores are only one subsection of consumer scores), and you probably haven’t heard of most of them. While you have a right to check your credit reports for free and dispute any inaccurate information on them, that’s not the case with most data brokers. You can ask, but they’re not obligated to hand over the information they have on you, even if that data has a serious impact on your life.

That’s a scary thought, but at the same time, you can’t reasonably expect to manage and keep track of all the data you generate. It’s not so much that companies have all this data but how they use it that’s an issue.

“You have no choices — in order to buy your milk at a reasonable price, you have to give the grocery store your phone number,” said Bob Sullivan, a consumer advocate and Credit.com contributor. It’s practically impossible to engage in the marketplace without giving others some information about yourself, which is why it makes no sense to make people responsible for the data they generate, Sullivan said. “There’s going to have to be some pretty strong rules where the responsibility is shifted to companies.”

Tweaking the Rules

Right now, data responsibility is in limbo. The World Privacy Forum recently issued an 80-page report on the dangers of incessant consumer scoring, which outlines the problems Big Data presents for job seekers, loan applicants — basically anything involving personal financial data.

“In the United States, we protect information based on how it’s used,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Credit report information has particular rules when it’s used in a credit report, and there’s particular rules for what you can do with medical information … but if information doesn’t fall into one of those categories, it’s basically the Wild Wild West, and it can be used.”

Sullivan and Calabrese said regulation has to catch up to the technology, because the fight between Big Data and the individual is extremely lopsided.

“We’re going to have to think about how companies are using information and whether that’s appropriate and fair,” Calabrese said.

Meanwhile, you should know the rights you have when it comes to protecting your credit standing. All consumers are entitled to free copies of their credit reports and should dispute inaccurate information. If you’re denied credit, you also have the right to see the credit report and score used (for free) so you can see what in your credit history was grounds for rejection. Because you have access to your credit information, it’s easy to make a plan for improving your standing. You can get two of your credit scores for free through Credit.com, if you’re interested in knowing where you stand and making strides toward higher scores.

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