There you are, humming along nicely, when all of a sudden the finance and insurance manager at a local car dealership tells you he pulled all three of your credit reports from the same credit reporting agency.
Wait a minute: Three credit reports from one agency?
Of course, this makes zero sense, and your knee-jerk reaction might be to wonder if you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Don’t worry, fraud probably isn’t the problem.
Fragmented credit reports
If you’ve got more than one credit report at any one credit reporting agency, then you have what’s referred to as a fragmented credit report or, more informally, “dupes, duplicate files, frag files or multiple files.” They all mean the same thing, which is that you’ve got a problem.
Fragmented credit reports are rare but can happen from time to time. The credit reporting agencies don’t house your credit report in their systems. Instead, they house billions of bits of data that are only compiled into a credit report when a lender (or another party) asks for it.
When the data bits (accounts, public records, collections) are compiled into a credit report, it’s possible they won’t all end up in the same single report belonging to you. They could end up on different reports, all belonging to you.
This happens for a few different reasons. First, some credit reports do not have infinite size limitations. If your file is too large, the credit bureau cannot compile and deliver it, so it breaks it into two smaller and more manageable sizes.
Second, if you’ve changed your identification enough you could end up with two or more credit files connected by a common identifier, such as a Social Security number.
For example, if you’re Sally Taylor and Sally Taylor-Smith and Sally Ann Taylor and Sally Ann Taylor-Smith, you might end up with duplicate credit reports. The credit reporting agencies can combine them, but you’ve got to know about it before you can ask them to do so.
Fragmented credit reports and your credit score
The bad news when it comes to multiple credit files is credit scoring. Credit scores are calculated at the file level, not at the consumer level. That means if you have three credit files at TransUnion, you’ll have three credit scores at TransUnion. And none of those three scores is likely to be accurate because they were calculated based on different data.
When credit files split and become fragmented, it’s very likely the information on those files will be different. So, for example, your American Express account may appear on one of your fragmented files while your Bank of America account may appear on another.
How can you avoid this problem?
The file size issue can be addressed, well, by not having too much credit. This typically doesn’t affect someone with a few credit cards and a bunch of mortgages, but it could happen if you have scores of accounts.
The issue of multiple aliases causing duplicate credit files is a little different. If you get married, then divorced, then married again, etc., you could end up with duplicate credit files simply because you’ve changed your name.
But, when you changed your name, did you do so with each of your creditors?
It’s a step that can easily be forgotten, and eventually you could confuse the credit bureaus just enough that they end up with more than one credit report with quasi-accurate identification.
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John Ulzheimer is the President of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com, the credit blogger for Mint.com and a contributor for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. He is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft. The opinions expressed in his articles are his and not of Mint.com or Intuit.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.