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Friday, February 27, 2009

Canadian Credit Reports - Creditor vs. Consumer

By Kenneth Abrams

Have you ever wondered how the practice of using credit reports really began in Canada? What kind of situation could have necessitated their development? The history of credit reports didn't start, of course, until long after the establishment of the credit system itself. Here, we'll examine why and how credit reports were created.

The Establishment of Credit The first practice of consumer credit actually began way back in the 18th century. The modern-day credit system, as we know it today, was started by Western Union in 1914. Other large companies, like the General Petroleum Corporation and Ford Motor Company, followed suit.

The onslaught of World War II brought with it a ban on the use of credit. However, as soon as the war ended, business began to boom, and the desire for credit grew with it. More and more people wanted more and more credit. They wanted to make bigger purchases - bigger items. They wanted everything now - and wanted to pay for it later. So the establishment of the credit system was well under way.

Who would keep the records? As the use of consumer credit grew, merchants recognized the need to share information about customers so they could make wise credit decisions. This need grew into the development of the credit bureaus. The first credit bureaus were non-profit cooperatives, owned by the merchants who participated in them. As time went on, their thinking changed - confidentiality and the quality of information they collected would be more advantageous for them if they ran as separate entities, operating on a for-profit basis. As of 1970, there were about 2,250 of these credit- reporting companies scattered about in small cities all across the country.

Up until that time, these companies shared consumer information on a local basis so, unfortunately, it helped them only with regard to local consumers. But the number of records was manageable because the customer base was small and the records were kept manually in paper-based filing systems.

After 1970, large credit-granting companies like General Electric (GE), Sears, and the auto manufacturers began to automate their systems for maintaining customer credit records. This allowed them to set up a limited number of credit decision centers across the country. But that left the credit bureaus behind. They had to add all this new credit information to their records to keep them up-to-date. So they encouraged a move towards consolidation into larger bureaus operating on a regional or national basis.

As the use of credit exploded, the need for automation and centralized credit reporting grew as well. Out of this need emerged three main credit reporting systems: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. Each of these organizations now has many smaller, affiliated credit bureaus. By 1998, there were 591 member credit bureaus in the U.S., selling 600 million credit reports annually.

The need for Canadian credit reports becomes crucial You might think that the banks were in on all this but, actually, they didn't join the credit bureau system until the late 1970s. That's because banking laws prohibited interstate banking, so they couldn't tie into the expanding credit bureau system until the laws were changed.

But once the banks joined the system, the stakes were raised. The potential effect of large loan losses on a company's balance sheet, and on the banking system in general, had become a great concern as consumers accepted more and more debt. So the use of credit reports to help the creditor make prudent lending decisions became absolutely necessary.

Legislation keeps the credit bureaus honest As credit bureaus began to organize themselves, government recognized the need for laws to oversee this new industry. We'll use the United States as a model, but most countries have similar laws. Back in 1970, the U.S. passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This law allowed consumers to access information about them that lenders, insurers, and others obtain from credit bureaus. Amendments passed in 1996 provided new consumer rights to improve accuracy of reports.

Then, in 2003, Congress passed some changes to the FCRA that provided some improvements for consumers. For example, they increased the accuracy of credit reports, and they prevented identity theft. They also restricted the marketing of financial products that used sensitive information that was shared with affiliates. In addition the FCRA amendments provided for one free credit report per year from each agency and guaranteed consumers access to credit scores at a reasonable fee.

The Creditor/Consumer relationship seesaws Originally, Canadian credit reporting services were created for the benefit of creditors. In the beginning, the consumer just went along with the system. However, as time went on, the consumer, backed by the government, forced the issue and gained some encouraging ground. Errors on credit reports could drastically affect someone's life, in that they could be refused employment, refused tenancy, refused credit, and generally be given a bad name in the credit industry. So the consumer fought for access to their credit information.

Now, as the system stands, the scales are much more balanced. Consumers have more rights: to see their credit report information, to object to errors in them, and a number of other positive outcomes. And for the credit bureaus, more information could be collected, and they could sell that information to marketers for extra profits.

So it seems that both sides are content with the system. But each side, the consumer and the credit bureau, is constantly jockeying for a better position. So the relationship continues, back and forth. But the bottom line for consumers is, as mentioned, credit reports can deeply affect their lives. That's why it's so important to check your credit report regularly - and have peace of mind.

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