Robert Marcum knew he had a problem when he found out he was dead.
The tragic news arrived recently as he was trying to close a deal to buy property in Palm Springs. Marcum, 70, was informed that, according to his credit file, he'd passed away a couple of years ago.
"No one had told me," he said.
Looking more closely at his credit file, Glendale resident Marcum discovered that not only was he dead but that, when he was alive, he was apparently involved with a woman named Jean Thomson. Her name was all over his file.
"I don't know any Jean Thomson," Marcum said. "But there were credit cards in Thomson's name. It seemed like something scandalous had happened."
Meanwhile, about 20 miles away in Woodland Hills, Thomson, 81, was thinking the same thing.
"I was getting mail in this man's name to my address," she said. "I had no idea what was going on."
Such digital screw-ups happen from time to time and can be a challenge for consumers to untangle.
"It can be a big hassle to deal with something like this," said William Kennedy, a Northern California lawyer who specializes in credit-related cases.
"Your credit is your ticket to all sorts of things, from jobs to apartments," he said. "You can literally be held hostage if you find yourself in a situation like this."
It's hard to say how exactly credit files become merged. Typically, there will be enough similarities between files — a name, an address, a few digits of Social Security numbers — to confuse database computers and cause two reports to become one.
When this happens, the credit reporting company that created the mess won't spot it until someone brings it to the firm's attention. And even then, it can require consumers to jump through multiple hoops to straighten things out.
"It's almost a full-time job unraveling these mistakes," said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action.
Marcum's first thought was that he was a victim of identity theft, but, strangely, it didn't seem as though Thomson was doing him any financial harm. She was paying her credit card bills. There didn't seem to be any fraud.
Marcum contacted Equifax and began the dispute process. "They couldn't explain how this had happened," he told me.
For her part, Thomson was deeply concerned that she too was an ID theft victim. But she was mystified that Marcum didn't seem to be ripping her off in any way.
Thomson said she was told by Bank of America that Marcum apparently had the same Social Security number as her deceased husband, who also was named Robert.
This made no sense. Social Security would have flagged such an occurrence as soon as it became clear that benefits were being claimed by more than one person.
Thomson wasn't sure how to proceed, so she contacted me. I brought it to Equifax, which directed me to the Consumer Data Industry Assn.
Stuart Pratt, head of the trade group, acknowledged that bad info can seep into people's credit files. Sometimes this can be the result of human error, such as a wrong keystroke or a misplaced digit. Other times, the computer may be at fault.
"Large databases wrestle with a variety of challenges," Pratt said. "We have marriages and divorces. People are moving. Data can change for a variety of reasons."
When consumers notice a credit-file mistake, he said, they should take the initiative in contacting the credit reporting company. Each company has its own dispute process.
Here's the thing: Just because you've cleaned up a mess at one company doesn't mean you've taken care of things at the others. In Marcum's and Thomson's cases, their problem seemed to have originated with their Equifax files.
Pratt said merged files such as this usually are confined to a single company, so there's no need for an industrywide system that would require each company to share such incidents with other credit reporting firms.
He admitted, though, that if this had happened to his Equifax file, he'd also contact Experian and TransUnion. Clearly the industry can do more in such instances.
Consumers should be vigilant where their credit files are concerned. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com and order a free copy of your files at least once per year. If you don't look out for problems, no one will.
As for Marcum and Thomson, they say they're taking steps to reclaim their lives. Marcum has closed the deal for that Palm Springs property. And creditors will no longer think he and Thomson are an item.
Although you never know.
"What's she like?" Marcum asked me.
--David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times