Sallie Mae’s handling of credit reports is appalling

Sallie Mae, the nation’s leading provider of educational loans, still hasn’t begun sending loan payment information on millions of borrowers to Experian and TransUnion, two of the major credit bureaus.

That’s what Boston resident Michael McCarthy discovered recently.

McCarthy and his wife are hoping to buy a house by this summer, so he got copies of all three of his credit reports.

To McCarthy’s surprise, Sallie Mae was not reporting his on-time loan payments to Experian and TransUnion, as the company had promised.

In the summer of 2002 Sallie Mae decided, without telling its more than 7 million borrowers, that it would report loan information only to Equifax and to Innovis Data Solutions, a small credit bureau.

Sallie Mae said it decided to withhold loan data from Experian and TransUnion because those bureaus sell names to companies interested in marketing to Sallie Mae’s borrowers. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows for this practice — called "prescreening" — in which lists of consumers who meet certain credit criteria are sold to credit grantors.

Critics accused Sallie Mae of trying to hide its borrowers from competitors who might offer better loan deals.

Amid mounting criticism and threats of legislative action by Senate leaders, Sallie Mae reversed its policy and promised in November to resume reporting repayment history of its borrowers to Experian and TransUnion.

"Our goal is to ensure that our customers get the credit they have earned," Rose DiNapoli, Sallie Mae’s vice president for government and industry relations, wrote to Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat.

DiNapoli added: "I am pleased to let you know that following extensive discussions with the other two credit bureaus, Sallie Mae has agreed to resume reporting to them and will provide each with credit information for our customers."

That letter was dated Nov. 4.

But in a letter dated Feb. 16, 2004, Sallie Mae wrote the following to McCarthy:

"Sallie Mae Servicing has submitted an update on your behalf to the four national credit bureaus. However, we will continue to only update Equifax and Innovis on a monthly basis."

McCarthy was stunned to read that statement.

"To me they are blatantly not doing what they said they were going to do," he said.

The letter sent to McCarthy was in error, said Tom Joyce, Sallie Mae’s vice president for corporate communications. Joyce said the company intends to honor its promise. He said the company is implementing a coding system to mask who its customers are to protect their privacy and that is one of the reasons it’s taking so long.

"There is a lot of work in terms of loading the files," Joyce said. "We are filing and testing the technology. We would have liked to have had this resolved a little earlier but it takes time."

So when can borrowers expect their data to be included in their credit files at Experian and TransUnion?

"Very soon," Joyce said.

That’s not good enough, complained Edmund Mierzwinski, the consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.

"This is just unbelievable," Mierzwinski said. "Sallie Mae borrowers deserve better. These technical excuses are absurd. The reason for the delay is completely self-serving and is hurting consumers. Why don’t they just send the same tapes they send to Equifax?"

Good question.

If I were a Sallie Mae customer, I would also be highly disturbed that through this entire process — the decision to pull payment data from Experian and TransUnion to the promises to then resume the credit reporting — the company still hasn’t bothered to tell borrowers a darn thing. Unless you’ve read the news reports or studied your credit files (which you should do every year or before applying for a loan), you wouldn’t know that your student loan information was missing from the two bureaus.

McCarthy, who does consulting work for mortgage companies, said he’s frustrated by the delays and lack of accurate information.

"I’m so angry about this," said McCarthy, who has four student loans with Sallie Mae. "As someone who works in the mortgage industry I know credit scores are so important. I’m ready to buy a house and I need to benefit from my on-time payments."

Credit scores are used to determine your creditworthiness. When companies fail to report your good payment history, it can result in your getting a lower score, which in turn can result in a less-than-favorable interest rate for a car or home loan.

With every passing day, someone may be getting a loan at a higher price because his or her positive payment history with Salle Mae isn’t being fully reported.

How long will McCarthy and other borrowers have to wait to get the good credit they are due?

So far it’s been too long.

(c) Washington Post Writers Group

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