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What happens when credit reporting firms think you're dead?

Man sues credit reporting agencies to assert he's not dead. @Davidlaz has details

George Sledge isn't dead.

We know this because he filed a lawsuit recently in Los Angeles that declares:

Plaintiff has been marked by defendants as "deceased" on his credit reports since at least April 2014.

Plaintiff is not deceased.

This sort of thing happens all too often.

One or more of the three major credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — will erroneously mark a person as dead, and then they'll make you run an obstacle course to convince them, and the world, that you're still very much alive.

Often, the problem begins with the Social Security Administration, which maintains a Death Master File. About 1,000 people are mistakenly included on the file every month, usually because of a bad keystroke or similar human error.

Sometimes, as in Sledge's case, it's just a matter of the credit firms being too lazy to confirm that reports of someone's death are greatly exaggerated.

Either way, dealing with a mistaken demise can be time-consuming, and the repercussions can ripple throughout the vast and shadowy world of private-sector databases.

"It's a nightmare that I wouldn't wish on anyone," said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer Action. "But the fact that you're actually alive and kicking means you can fight it."

Sledge, 58, told me that he tried to work with Experian after it placed a "deceased" notation on his credit file. But he got nowhere.

So the Chicago resident is taking his walking-dead case to court.

"They're telling me that I'm deceased," Sledge said. "I'm alive!"

Being dead, credit-wise, can have serious consequences. First of all, your credit score drops to zero, a precautionary measure intended to prevent identity thieves from seeking loans in the name of a deceased person.

In Sledge's case, being financially dead resulted in being turned down for a department-store credit card and, more seriously, being rejected for a car loan, which he said made it harder to work.

"It's been a big headache," Sledge said. "I can't get anything or do anything."

Longer term, a pronouncement of death in a major database — the credit firms maintain files on millions of consumers — can be reflected for years to come in other companies' computers.

So-called data brokers aggregate information from numerous sources and sell digital dossiers to marketers and other clients, which in turn archive the information in their own systems.

Within a relatively brief time, a single piece of bad info can carom through cyberspace and leave dark, hard-to-clean stains on hundreds of records.

How bad can it be? Let me put it like this: Some schmo stole my identity about 20 years ago and I'm still getting marketing pitches in his name — even though he's long since been deported from the country.

Sledge's lawyer, Erin Novak, said it's still unclear how her client was killed off. The mistake seems to have originated with Ohio's Comenity Bank, which issues store credit cards on behalf of dozens of retailers.

Novak said Sledge had a Comenity account since 1988. The account was closed by the bank in 2012. Comenity subsequently issued a "deceased" notification to Experian and Equifax, which included it in their files for Sledge.

No one at Comenity responded to my calls and emails. But Novak speculated that the bank confused her client, George D. Sledge III, with his father, George D. Sledge Jr., who died in 2001.

Novak said Experian and Equifax accepted the "deceased" notice without any fact-checking on their part. This, she said, may have violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Section 1681e(b) of the federal law states in part that "whenever a consumer reporting agency prepares a consumer report, it shall follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information."

Novak said neither Experian nor Equifax attempted to contact Sledge to see whether he had indeed shuffled off this mortal coil.

"They didn't call anyone," she said. "It was all automated. They just accepted from a single furnisher of information that he was deceased, and that was that."

Sledge said he tried to explain to Experian that he was still alive but was rebuffed. Discouraged, he said, he didn't even try to remedy things with Equifax.

An Experian spokeswoman declined to comment on Sledge's lawsuit "due to the pending status of the litigation." No one at Equifax returned my calls and emails.

Sledge's lawsuit was filed this month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. It alleges that the credit companies ruined Sledge's creditworthiness and placed him in financial distress. It seeks unspecified damages.

His experience serves as a reminder for all consumers to keep close watch on their credit files. You're entitled by law to one free copy of your credit report annually from each credit agency. Get yours through the website AnnualCreditReport.com.

If you come across erroneous information, don't hesitate to report it. Although Sledge found the process challenging, it's mostly a matter of jumping through the various hoops laid out by the credit companies.

The Federal Trade Commission website offers step-by-step instructions for disputing bad info and making sure the credit agency follows through with necessary corrections. It's a good place to start.

Remember, not all information is shared by each credit bureau. So if you correct an error with one, you can't be sure your other credit records will be clean. You have to look at each file to be sure.

It might sound like a big pain in the rear. But that's life.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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