When thieves applied for a Walmart MasterCard under Olga Milman's name and racked up more than $1,500 in charges, police determined it was a clear case of fraud, yet the victim had to fight for three years to get Walmart and Equifax to correct her damaged credit record.
"I was phoning every single month and spending an enormous amount of hours on the phone, phoning Equifax, then Walmart, then Equifax, then Walmart. I don't understand why this would take years," Milman said.
Equifax is one of two credit rating bureaus in Canada — the other is TransUnion. They provide credit scores and information whenever someone applies for a mortgage, a loan, a credit card or to rent an apartment.
In Milman's case, she discovered the problem with her credit rating in May 2013 after Walmart called about the outstanding balance on a card she knew nothing about.
According to the police report, two people fraudulently applied for the credit card at a Winnipeg Walmart five months earlier. When Walmart's own investigation also found fraud, Milman says she was told the problem was fixed.
It wasn't until she applied to renew her mortgage more than a year later that she discovered that wasn't the case. All that time, the overdue account was still under her name and her credit score took a big hit.
She was desperate to restore her credit standing.
"My battle with Walmart got even more brutal with every phone call," she said.
"They say the supervisor will phone, but they never get back. Once they promised they'd send me the confirmation letter that the account was fraudulent, but I didn't receive it. Other times when I phoned, they said that they cannot send this type of letter."
Milman told Go Public she felt like she had no power to defend herself, even though she's always paid all her bills.
"I've never had any balance on my credit cards, yet I still have a really bad credit score no matter what I do."
Walmart told Go Public it did send letters to Milman that confirmed the Walmart MasterCard account was fraudulent, and the company can't explain why she never received any of them.
When Go Public asked Equifax about Milman's case, the company fixed the problem in less than 24 hours by removing Walmart's reporting from Milman's file.
In an email, communications director Tom Carroll wrote: "A situation like the one faced by Ms. Milman is a rare exception and not the rule of practice when it comes to Equifax and implementing fraud investigations for consumer credit files. This is an unfortunate combination of human error and miscommunication which resulted in the routine escalation procedures being missed by the front line team."
Equifax says it received 10,000 inquiries about fraud investigations in the month of June. The company says most are dealt with quickly.
Walmart says after Milman contacted the company in 2013, it sent faxes to both credit bureaus asking them to correct Milman's information.
'I don't understand why this would take years.' - Olga Milman
Alex Roberton, senior director of corporate affairs for Walmart, says TransUnion did it right away, but Equifax didn't.
According to Walmart, when Milman contacted them again after discovering the problem persisted, it sent another message to Equifax asking it to correct the record. Milman's records show Walmart continued to report the account overdue under her name until July 2015, a period of more than two years.
Consumers 'guilty until proven innocent'
Lawyer Jeff Orenstein of the Consumer Law Group says the credit reporting system is one "where the consumer is guilty until proven innocent."
He says many people don't realize the impact credit information errors can have. "You can be refused a loan, leasing a car, rental of apartment, cellphone contract. There are very serious consequences here."
Statistics are hard to find, but one national study from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in 2005 found 18 per cent of people surveyed discovered errors on their credit files and 83 per cent hadn't checked their credit score in more than three years.
'You can be refused a loan, leasing a car, rental of apartment, cellphone contact. There are very serious consequences here.' - Jeff Orenstein, Consumer Law Group
Some provinces — including Quebec, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta — have consumer reporting legislation that prohibits businesses from knowingly putting incorrect information on people's credit reports. But in all provinces, the onus is on consumers to fix any problems, first by noticing a negative report, then by asking the credit agency to remove the error.
Ultimately, it's up to TransUnion or Equifax to decide if the information should be removed.
Go Public tests credit reporting system
Go Public decided to test the system with the help of Calgary business owner Jerilyn Wolstenholme. She discovered two incorrect addresses — places where she'd never lived — on her credit report and wanted them removed.
After asking a lot of questions, being put through to different agents and transferred from one department to another, TransUnion told Wolstenholme the addresses it had on file were correct so nothing would be done.
Equifax refused to provide Wolstenholme a copy of her file and told her she needed to go to each of her banks to figure out which one was reporting the wrong addresses.
That same day, Wolstenholme met with "credit fixer" Richard Moxley, who runs eCredit Fix in Calgary.
Moxley used to be a mortgage broker, but found so much of his time was spent cleaning up incorrect information on would-be homeowners' credit files, he turned that into a full-time business.
"It doesn't have to be that complicated, it doesn't have to be that hard," Moxley said.
'I think the biggest problem is no one is forcing the banks, lenders, Equifax or TransUnion to actually fix it, to make it easier.' - Richard Moxley, eCredit Fix
Within 24 hours of looking into Wolstenholme's problem, Moxley received a letter from TransUnion saying her credit record had been fixed.
He also found the wrong addresses weren't on Wolstenholme's Equifax file at all — information Wolstenholme couldn't get on her own.
"I think the biggest problem is no one is forcing the banks, lenders, Equifax or TransUnion to actually fix it, to make it easier," he said.